When the Ephemeral Becomes Lasting

Having been on the comedy circuit since 1994, Janey Godley has risen to far greater prominence over the last couple of years.

For a long time, she’s been overdubbing footage of politicians with a humourous counter-narrative. But these really took off when she applied this to the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, giving COVID-19 briefings. Here’s an example that’s not safe for work.

Early in the series, a number of running catchphrases were established, many of which appeared to be improvised. One of them caught on more than any other, namely ‘Frank, get the door’, which was said as the First Minister left the stage. Godley has now used this as the title of a compilation book.

I’m sure everyone’s been at an event or gathering where an in-joke was established and built upon as the night went on. Most often, the joke is forgotten in a day or two, but sometimes it carries on, gaining arms and legs along the way.

A good example is from a poetry pal. Ross McCleary runs a Twitter account where the majority of the material revolves around recurring themes, including – but not limited to – the video for the Robbie Williams track Rock DJ, Hump Day as a nickname for Wednesday, Infinite Jest, and LinkedIn cliches.

Yesterday, I took part in an impromptu discussion surrounding another account called Edinburgh Watch, known for constantly retweeting messages from the city. Ross jokingly suggested writing a poetry show about ‘the death of Edinburgh Watch’, with other people suggesting elements that the narrative could have.

However, he’s also one to round up collaborators and take seemingly silly ideas to fruition. Previous projects have included reading poetry dressed as pandas, and a show set in the same universe as the old Fererro Rocher adverts.

It’s entirely possible, therefore, that something lasting might come from all this idle joking about Edinburgh Watch, and I look forward to seeing the end product.

A Summary of Summary

Last week, I made a major edit to a Wikipedia entry for the first time in years. The page in question was about the defunct Roodyards railway station in Dundee. Although no evidence of the station survives, I had a picture illustrating its approximate location, so I posted it.

Back when the site was still a novelty, I used to make contributions on a regular basis. I created my account in May 2006, although I did make edits before that date.

Whenever a page is changed, the person who made that change is expected to leave a summary sentence about the amendment. Some of my early ones include:

  • ‘Removed Stub status, since there is sufficient material regarding this song.’, for the Ben Folds Five track Brick.
  • ‘Corrected spelling of Kaiser Chiefs.’
  • ‘Added Differences from the book section.’ about the BBC series Hotel Babylon.
  • ‘Removed Young Lochee Fleet vandalism.’ after a page was maliciously edited.
  • ‘Made page into a disambiguation page, since the two Dairyleas are separate entities.’ for two companies that have the same name.

I even created a complex word association game called Word Before Last that is no longer popular, but is still a live page. Other users have not only continued the game, but even created extra branches and expanded the rules for clarity. There is robust documentation behind the scenes about the changes made at each stage.

For the last ten years, I’ve been working in jobs where I’ve been required to write reports. Looking back, those Wikipedia contributions offered vital practice in writing summaries of my findings. It’s a difficult skill to teach, but the main question to answer is, ‘What can be removed while still conveying the same message?’

It might sound strange, but that same principle of summary also works for poetry. This morning, the humourist Brian Bilston published a very short verse about a duvet.

He could quite easily have written many more lines about wanting to stay in bed because it was comfortable. In just four lines, however, he encapsulates his thoughts, and there is an effective implication of the comfort without needing to spell it out.

It’s Your Letters

Earlier this month, I received a handwritten letter from my pal Katy. We’ve known each other online for nearly two decades, ever since LiveJournal was the dominant blogging site.

However, this letter was one of the few times our friendship has seeped into the real world. We haven’t even spoken by phone before. I think our last piece of written correspondence was when I surprised her by sending a birthday card to a radio station where she volunteered.

This month’s letter was actually the second one she’d sent recently. The first went AWOL en route from Wales – and has never turned up.

I occasionally speak here about the enjoyment I gain from writing by hand. I keep a particular style of notebook with perforated A5 pages, plus several blue pens of the same type so I can carry on if one of them runs out. Even when I’m working on a non-handwritten project, the first draft is usually done in pencil and only transferred to a computer at the second stage.

I’ll reply to Katy when I have the opportunity. She’s given me eight optional questions to think about, but I reckon I have an answer for each one.

The Text Behind the Text

At the time of the Sydney 2000 Olympics, access to the Internet was becoming more common outside of academic settings, and many people used the official event website to keep track of the news.

One such user, Bruce Lindsay Maguire, won a court case against the organising committee because that website wasn’t accessible to him. One point of complaint was that no alt-text had been provided for images, so his Braille display wasn’t able to tell him what the images represented. The Australian Human Rights Commission website features a summary of the case.

With 22 years now passed, it’s easy to imagine this problem was confined to the early and more experimental years of the Web, but that’s not always the case.

Let’s use Instagram as an example, which employs software to try to identify what’s in a picture. A typical caption is ‘May be a picture of two people’ or ‘May be cars on a road’. However, it’s not easy to find the option to type your own alt-text. On the Android app, you need to click a small ‘Advanced settings’ link just before posting the picture, then head to ‘Write alt text’. There seems to be no good reason not to provide this box in plain sight.

A good piece of alt-text is one that fills in any important details that aren’t conveyed by the image caption or any other context. It doesn’t need to contain every detail, just enough to help someone understand the scene if they can’t see it.

One exception is purely decorative images. On this page, I often use headers created from fractals; these are generated by software as a copyright-free source of images. It’s not important to know that the image has dots and swirls of blue or pink, so these are typically labelled as simply ‘Fractal’.

Skip to Next Week

I’m in the unusual position of having an entry almost entirely planned out in my head, but no time to write it out.

It’s all about alternative text, which describes images and other media either for people who can’t see them, or for context that’s not obvious from the media.

So I’ll catch you next week, at which point I expect to be ready to present it.

Creating a New Phonetic Alphabet

I didn’t expect to be writing about this topic as a full-length blog post, but last week, I devised a new phonetic alphabet.

The existing NATO version is well-known and intended to be understood in a few different languages, so why tamper with that? It was partly for fun but partly for curiosity: to find out whether I could compile the list using as many rhymes and homophones as possible, thus rendering it useless for any practical purpose.

For example, the terms ‘Bravo’, ‘Delta’ and ‘Papa’ remove any ambiguity between ‘B’, ‘D’ and ‘P’, even when said with other words on a dodgy radio connection. I’ve instead used ‘Banter’, ‘Damper’ and ‘Pander’, which can sound identical over a radio, especially surrounded by other words.

Here’s a full list of my Frankenstein phonetics:

  • Ampere
  • Banter
  • Clacton
  • Damper
  • Empire
  • Falcon
  • Guitar
  • Hogarth
  • Impair
  • Jackson
  • Klaxon
  • Llanelli
  • Mighty
  • Nineteen
  • Oughwhere
  • Pander
  • Qatar
  • Roger
  • Saviour
  • Tamper
  • Umpire
  • Vulcan
  • Waiver
  • Xavier
  • Yngling
  • Zloty

There are other easily-confused groups such as ‘Guitar’, ‘Hogarth’ and ‘Qatar’. Then we have ‘Nineteen’ and ‘Roger’, neither of which sound as though they represent letters. Finally, the vowels more or less sound similar, while ‘Llanelli’, ‘Oughwhere’ and ‘Yngling’ are included because none of the words has an obvious correct pronunciation for people who are unfamiliar with them.

So what have I learnt from this exercise? Mostly that it’s not as simple as it sounds to create a hodgepodge of similar terms. If I’d picked words at random, they probably would have been distinctive enough from each other.

And what will I do with this list? Probably nothing; it is, after all, meant to be a useless alphabet.

A Trickle of Income

In 2003, The Killers released their first single Mr Brightside, but it didn’t take off commercially until 2004. Despite the gap of nearly two decades since then, the single has spent 307 non-consecutive weeks in the UK Top 100, accurate to Friday 25 March 2022. This type of sleeper hit has a literary equivalent called the midlist.

A midlist book in a publisher’s catalogue won’t shift a lot of units at any one time, instead consistently selling enough copies to justify keeping it in circulation. But is this a good or a bad place to be? It depends on who you ask.

Publishers typically like the midlist because it gives them a wide pool to choose from, not to mention bringing in reasonable passive income for minimum marketing. On the other hand, writers can find it difficult to promote their work because those marketing budgets are geared towards new releases.

Realistically, most published novels will end up on that list, with only a few breaking out as household names. But the aforementioned passive income can also benefit authors. I’ve had a few short stories and poems published between five and ten years ago, and they bring in secondary royalties from when books are lent or copied.

If you’ve had anything published with an ISBN, I urge you to register with the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society. There’s a one-off membership fee taken from your first payment, but subsequent ones are made every six months with no further deductions.

Back on The Slam Wagon

Earlier this month, I visited the StAnza poetry festival in St Andrews. On previous visits, I’ve stayed overnight to allow me to visit the poetry slam, which finishes around midnight. This time, because of other commitments, I missed out on what’s normally one of my highlights.

Nonetheless, I did manage to take part in a smaller-scale slam on Saturday just gone and at a more local venue. Unusually, this was hosted and judged by comedians rather than poets, which lent the evening more of a cabaret vibe.

I’d half-forgotten I’d been invited to perform there, so I spent much of Saturday trying to re-learn a poem I’d written about three years ago. But as each performer would be invited to perform at least twice, I had to accommodate for that too.

Plan B was to find a short poem that I could remember, or at least improvise with.

Plan A was more of a risk, but also what I ended up doing. During the first round, I would write clerihews about the performers and the judges, and perform it as my second poem. It’s something I’ve done before at poetry events, but never competitively. Just as actors often take improv classes to improve their skills, I think writers can benefit from timed exercises.

Ultimately, I didn’t go through to the third round. I don’t know how that would have gone anyway, as I’d created a lighthearted atmosphere with my first two pieces, then my third one would have signalled a definite change of mood.

The top honour went deservedly to someone who’d won the StAnza slam just one week before.

Inside the Box

Only in the last 12 months or so have I discovered how much I dislike writing outdoors. I’ve recently been thinking about this, but because of an art lesson rather than prose or poetry.

The task was to find leaves from trees and bushes, then draw them under natural daylight. It did not go well. I set up a table and chair on my balcony, which doesn’t see much sunlight until later in the day. It was freezing, it was windy, and at one point, my pen fell off the balcony. A sunny day can be just as bad, making it difficult to read a computer screen with the glare, and there’s still often a risk of rain.

But more than that, even under the most favourable of weather conditions, I only enjoy writing indoors. When I’m outside, I like to be standing up and moving about. It’s not an environment that puts me in a frame of mind for writing.

This knowledge helps me incredibly. I know if I want to finish – for example – a blog entry at lunchtime, it’s not worth the 20-minute round-trip to the park, and that I’d be more productive sitting on my couch.

Writing to Form

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to format a poem.

The first is to use a form. This can include structures like a short unrhymed haiku, a complex luc bat of indefinite length, or rhyming every second or fourth line.

In my own work, I would normally default to free verse, but in a recent piece, I started writing a triolet before realising that a villanelle has a similar repetitive structure, but allowed more than twice as many lines. The intent was to present as a heated argument between two people, so the repetition worked quite well.

In free verse, by contrast, the form is dictated by the poet in terms of line length, syllable count, where any rhyme is placed, &c. In my experience, this is often misunderstood by non-poets – and even some poets – as it can look like the words are simply chopped-up prose or placed at random, rather than placed there with intent.

It’s difficult to sum up in a few paragraphs how to write free verse poetry, but the best advice I can give is to chop out what you don’t absolutely need. Even when writing to form, I sometimes find it necessary to remove the unnecessary and replace the missing syllables with another thought or a stronger image.

This advice particularly comes into its own with rhyming couplets. If it works for the piece, then that’s great, but consider whether removing the couplets element might make it stronger. I have a lot of experience of hearing second lines that seem to be placed there only to rhyme with the previous line.