Poetry in the Community

On Monday of last week, I had the opportunity to teach my colleagues how to write a type of poem called a clerihew. This was part of a larger event called Learning at Work Week where people were teaching their skills to their workmates, such as Zumba, knitting and making mocktails.

A lot of people don’t think they’re very good at writing poetry, so the aim of my workshop was to encourage colleagues to write verses about each other using a simple format. I ended up with a number of good ones, and the clean ones might make it into the internal newsletter.

Colleagues and friends have also occasionally commented that they don’t understand poetry in general, with some asking how to appreciate it.

The best advice I can offer is to read and listen to a wide variety of different poets. There will probably come a point when you begin to differentiate between what you like and don’t like.

After all, most people are certain of their taste in music, and that’s because we’re surrounded by it every day and have built up a template in our heads of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’. If you’re willing to take the time, it’s possible to do the same with poetry.

Advertisements

Almost Nearly Started and Just About Finished

There are times when it’s difficult to begin a new project or to add to an existing one. This entry is due to be published at 6pm on Tuesday 7 May, but I only wrote the first words at around 8:30pm the day before.

Rationally, I know I need to put something out by the deadline, but it was a struggle to think of a topic, plus I have another project I’m keen to start once this entry is written that doesn’t have a time pressure associated with it.

Fortunately, I have the luxury of addressing this procrastination within my final entry, thus creating a topic to discuss.

And it’s not only writing projects. I promised a friend I’d read her Star Wars fan fiction, but that’s been 13 months and I still haven’t touched a word of it.

As I write, I’ve looked up the link again and charged up my Kobo. At least if I transfer it to my device, I have a higher chance of looking at it before 2020. I can’t provide a link because I was sworn not to share it.

Another area where I’m trying to keep up to date is podcasts. There’s a local one called Creative Chit-Chat that I only began to listen to at episode 46 because I knew the interviewee. I’ve then made a concerted effort to go back and listen to them all in order; I currently have episode 35 queued up.

One aspect I love about catching up with a production is that it can compress a long period of time into a shorter period so you can see the changes that have occurred since then.

A prime example is The West Wing, where the fictional political landscape changed over its eight years on the air, influenced by what was happening in the news at the same time.

No doubt if I scrolled back through my entries on this blog, I would find a comparable pattern emerging. Heck, maybe one of my regular readers has already done this and can comment on what they found.

The Joy of Nonsense

Last week, I said I was organising three live events over the next month and that there would be more about those in this entry. On reflection, I think this is better done as a reactive post, as I can then talk about two of the final performances. So that will definitely appear next week.


A couple of weeks ago, I was in a pub in Stockton-on-Tees called the Thomas Sheraton. Behind the bar was a coffee machine with the label ‘Biscuits don’t live here’.

For some reason, I found this particularly amusing. By the time my meal was served, I’d written a good chunk of a piece that’s now sitting at around 350 words. It’s a surreal narrative about anthropomorphised biscuits are who are fed up with people and are leaving town.

Normally when I look back on work, I’m inclined to remove words from it. In this case, however, I’ve added words almost every time.

But where is the line between a nonsense piece and one that’s simply rubbish? Here’s my view on the matter.

The Bob Dylan track Subterranean Homesick Blues is a disjointed sequence of phrases and imagery. It’s lauded as summing up the counterculture movement of the day. However, even taking into account that many of the references are now outdated, I simply don’t find the lyrics cohesive enough to enjoy them.

By contrast, I thoroughly enjoy the Simon Armitage poem Thank You for Waiting, which is structured as an airport boarding announcement, but the categories of passengers he describes become increasingly more bizarre. Taken together, all the lines poke fun at the class system.

So for me, even a loose cohesiveness or some form of internal logic makes all the difference between the nonsense I enjoy and the nonsense I don’t. Remember this is only my definition, and it’s not wrong to like what everyone else hates, or vice versa.

The Project That Turns into Another

In April, the first of two Camp NaNoWriMo events takes place. This is a less involved version of the main National Novel Writing Month in November, where members can choose their own word count or even a different type of literary project.

My aim was to produce another draft of the novel I’d redrafted in November, spending a target average of one hour per day. However, I haven’t done any of this editing so far because my time has been taken up organising three live events over the next month. There will be more about those in the next entry.

In fact, the entry you’ll see next week has already been partially written, and that’s because I put aside that for a piece that came to me yesterday, prompted by a sign on a coffee machine that read ‘Biscuits don’t live here’.

It certainly isn’t the first occasion where I’ve felt inclined to put one project aside in favour of another. Depending on the time constraints, I usually choose the one that’s eating away at me the most.

In the case of the biscuits poem, I probably would never have completed this if I’d left it aside to write the original blog entry. By contrast, I know I’ll come back to that entry next week because this space needs to be filled.

A Nickname That Sticks

At my school, some of the boys acquired nicknames that stuck with them until they left.

Some were rather obvious: ‘Wilf’ was derived from the first name William, while ‘Gubby’ was shortened from the surname Gilbertson.

But some were a little stranger. One boy was dubbed ‘Beefy’, not for being fat, but after an incident that isn’t necessary to repeat. And I never did find out how Adam started to be called ‘Cuba’

A nickname in a story can be a powerful way of telling the reader about the personality of the character or the type of friends that surround them. The best nicknames work with mutual consent, but not necessarily consent with the nicknamed party.

In the William Golding novel Lord of the Flies, Piggy says early on that he doesn’t want to be called Piggy. Yet nobody had thought of calling him this until he mentioned it, then everyone started doing it.

When just one person has another name for a character, it tells us as much about the person who uses that name as the person it applies to.

Perhaps it’s a close bond between the two. In the crime series NCIS, Ducky nearly always calls Gibbs by his first name ‘Jethro’ because they’re old friends.

Conversely, I’ve witnessed the opposite relationship. In a previous job, one colleague accidentally referred to another as ‘Declan’ instead of Brendan. For the next three years, he continued to use ‘Declan’, seemingly oblivious that none of the rest of us found it funny, least of all Brendan.

Knowing How to Start

Although you see a new blog entry here every week, it isn’t always an easy business knowing how to start writing them. Sometimes, I have only a vague idea of what I want to say; other times, there might be two topics of equal importance that don’t link into each other or sit well together.

There’s no good answer to either of these problems, but one technique is to start writing anything, whether it’s a fragment, a plan, someone else’s words, or even a load of nonsense. After a few minutes of non-stop writing, I find this has the effect of turning on the tap so a structure begins to flow.

Another good method is to head out for a walk or a run, depending upon your preferred speed. A few years ago, I was struggling to write a short story about a man with an excellent memory but limited social skills. I went for a walk in the rain, writing down fragments in my notepad in bus shelters. The moment I had the line, ‘Anger can do in five seconds what a shrink can’t do in five years’, I was ready to write the rest of it.

At times, of course, there will be nothing pressing to say. It’s more difficult to start from a blank slate, but the above techniques can be used in the same way.

The Final Check

I’m a long-term user of Grammarly. This is a program that adds spelling and grammar functionality to other programs, including your browser.

Every week, I receive an e-mail from the company, summarising how many mistakes have been detected and how productive I’ve been compared to other users. But that’s not the full story.

When I give a time, for instance, I’ll write ‘8pm’. Grammarly, by contrast, thinks this should be ‘8 pm’; there appears to be no way – even in the premium version – to permanently ignore this check. There are other occasions where I’m prompted to add or change ‘a’ or ‘the’. In one instance, the program would accept neither ‘the audience is’ nor ‘the audience are’ as correct, telling me to change one to the other.

As such, there is no substitute for checking your work manually. A spelling check will recognise both ‘from’ and ‘form’ as valid words, even the writer meant the other one. A grammar check is unlikely to pick up whether ‘rowing on the lake’ refers to controlling the boat or having an argument.

A good way to do a robust check is to leave the piece aside for a while – I suggest one minute per word – then to read it out loud, which highlights any errors more clearly. If the piece is particularly important, consider asking someone else to read it. There’s no guarantee these steps will eliminate every error, but they will reduce the chances of one cropping up.