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.

A Short Piece About Short Pieces

Ten years ago next month, I joined my first writing class with the author Zoe Venditozzi.

In each lesson, she would give us a prompt, which might comprise a sentence, a few words or even a photograph. We’d then have five or ten minutes to write a paragraph or a passage inspired by it, sometimes with extra restrictions like using a particular viewpoint or writing a certain number of words. Many actors take improv classes to hone their skills, and this was the writers’ equivalent.

Since then, I’ve built up a considerable volume of short pieces, many of which have been revised over the years, but nothing that forms a larger cohesive work on a single theme.

Some time ago, I wanted to change this, and add some longer-form pieces to my archives. These turned into stage plays: one is ready to go, the other needs to be redrafted. I also have in mind a radio play that is mapped out but needs to be written.

Now, I’m ready to go back and write shorter pieces. I’m in a poetry monthly group that keeps me focussed on producing work for the next meeting, and I wrote another original poem for the purposes of performing to a virtual audience yesterday.

Along with this, I also need to return to the habit of responding to publishers’ requests for pieces. I used to aim to send an average of one a week, and that still seems like a manageable target.

Being There

In early March, the StAnza poetry festival takes place in St Andrews. I’ve been going for at least five years now. It’s an easy half-hour bus trip, although I’ve previously stayed over so I can go to late shows without worrying about missing the last ride home.

While it would be inaccurate to say there is a ‘house style’ of poetry, it does tend towards the contemplative and wistful, more Carol-Ann Duffy than Brian Bilston. In this relatively quiet town, save for the transient student population, it’s a mood that fits well.

In 2020, the in-person festival narrowly escaped cancellation, so the events were held in venues across town as normal, predominantly the Byre Theatre or the town hall. The challenge this year is to convey its essence through a screen for the first time.

The ones I’ve been to so far this year certainly fit what I expect to see from StAnza: these include the two-hour launch event, a meditation session, and a poets’ feedback group.

But what I enjoy most are the breakfast panel discussions where the audience is served with a pie and a cup of tea. On Sunday, I tried to recreate this at home, and it was somewhat successful:

A Twitter update showing a pie and other food on a plate, and an online event on a projector.

It’s not too late to grab many of the tickets. The festival is on all this week, and there are plenty available free of charge.

Poettiquette

I was invited to take part in a poetry reading on Sunday night, spanning not only the UK but other countries in the Anglosphere.

This was a mammoth four-hour stint, even with a time limit of ten minutes per poet, plus just one five-minute break. My spot was halfway through, but I stayed the whole time because I wanted to listen to the rest of them, most of whom were event hosts like me.

I performed one serious piece and two humorous. Although there was no audible feedback, I could see some of the faces in the crowd and read comments in the chat box. The set seemed to go down well.

At that point, I received a friend request on Facebook. I was glad that someone enjoyed my work enough to make that request. Furthermore, I’d been in a planning group with some of the other performers, so we were acquainted already.

It must also be stated that the public part of my profile clearly states ‘Not open to friend requests’, yet as of Monday morning, I had four requests waiting. One of them sent me a message acknowledging that he’d seen my profile, and was basically trying his luck. I admire his gumption, but I told him he could either follow my Hotchpotch open-mike page or my Twitter account instead.

On the back of this, it occurred to me that when people perform at my events, they might also have the same view, and a lot of folk don’t feel comfortable telling someone to back off. To this end, I’ve added a disclaimer to the open-mike. It’s likely I’ll tinker with the exact wording, but the spirit will be reinforced in event promotions:

Unless consent has been given, the host and contributors are not open to friend requests.

This alone is unlikely to stop the issue; three people have either not read my profile or wilfully ignored it. However, it acts as a pre-emptive reminder to keep some distance from those who don’t want to interact so closely with others.

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.

Lots of Words, Little Payoff

A long time ago on this blog, we explored what to look out for when submitting your work. I’d never had a particularly bad experience until recently.

But first, let me take you back 2½ years. I’d entered a short piece to be included in a charity anthology, along with a number of local writers. The book would then be sold to raise funds for the cause.

The process was long and slow. Months after my submission was accepted, I remember going to one meeting, which I found to be an unstructured and unproductive discussion about the form this book should take. As such, I didn’t attend another meeting, although I’d cut the committee a little slack because it was clear they were learning as they went along.

We then received sporadic updates about its progress, and just over a week ago, we heard confirmation that the book was finally ready. All we had to do was send our postal addresses to receive a contributor’s copy.

At this point, it transpired that the contributors would not receive complimentary or even reduced-price copies. This came as news to us as much as it did to the writer who had been liaising with the charity committee. We were instead invited to buy a copy for £19.99.

It’s considered bad form in the publishing world to charge contributors to see their own work in print. Some presses do operate like this, using a business model called vanity publishing, but that’s looked down upon in the industry, even by self-publishers. In this case, I’m satisfied it wasn’t the committee’s intention to act like a vanity publisher, but a case of not understanding the conventions of publishing.

None of the contributors want it to reflect badly on the charity or its purpose; indeed, that’s why we supported it with our words. Nonetheless, a number of us feel shortchanged. If we had been advised at the start we would be expected to buy a copy, we would have at least made an informed choice. Even for those who might choose to buy this volume, it’s currently only available in person and on a certain day of the week, which further restricts its availability.

The contributors have now opened discussions with the committee in the hope that a deal or a compromise can be reached.

A Tutor Like No Other

Throughout the ten years I’ve been writing, there has been one figure almost constant throughout: a man called Eddie Small.

I learnt of his death a few weeks ago, and his passing has left a gaping hole in the Dundee literary scene. He would always appear at poetry events to support writers or to read himself. One of his strengths was that he would chat and joke with anybody and everybody.

In this way, he would encourage people to improve themselves. He worked with a pal of mine who had a terrible fear of public speaking; so much so that she once ran offstage mid-reading. With his intervention and patience, she was eventually able to read her work in front of a theatre audience.

I, meanwhile, love the limelight. When an actor couldn’t perform in his play The Four Marys, about four local figures who shared a forename, he thought of me and offered me a small part.

I last met Eddie in January of this year, talking about his latest book To Bodies Gone, celebrating 130 years of Anatomy at the university.

Indeed, he was very open to talking about death and encouraged others to do the same. On one memorable occasion, he somehow managed to arrange for my classmates and me – English students, not medical ones – to visit the medical school mortuary. I recall it was rather life-affirming.

As his passing was so sudden, it’s been hard to take in. It’ll be a long time before I turn up at an event and don’t expect to hear him roping someone into one of his many projects.