Perfect Pitch (Live)

Buoyed by my successful return to Poetry Unplugged at the Poetry Cafe in London last week, I decided to try some of my prose there too. Trying to stay within the spirit of the event I picked a somewhat lyrical piece, Perfect Pitch. What follows below is Perfect Pitch (Live), an updated, and dare I say improved, version that better suits the spoken word. I received some brilliant feedback from the audience, so I hope you enjoy it too.

Perfect Pitch (Live)

There’s a tragic symmetry to the receptions that greet both ends of a housing project – fêted inauguration, fated implosion. The violent end becomes a spectator sport suffused with blood-lust, a way of forgetting the collective embarrassment. Anything goes in a crowd.

Hope was there at the beginning, as too were financial constraints, the convenience of easy solutions and relief of an imminent end – all cast aside by a willingness to believe, or self-deceive. Then that hope became Hype, the belief lost all sense of self and together spawned hubris.

High-concept sketches scrawled in a thick, black crayon were the kindling, elaborated in balsa the metaphorical became literal. Each artwork came wrapped in seductive writing that spun a carefully-calibrated narrative – a soothing emollient for the rough spots of groupthought.

Others demand more, and are given it. The full graphical arsenal is deployed – artists’ impressions of gleaming buildings, the sweeping pathways and impeccable grass. Computer animations take the viewer on an effortless stroll through the estate, a beatific vision of the life they could lead. On day one, an idyll, for how long? The odds are poor, non-virtual footage insists on proving the point. But that comes later, that comes at the end, that comes too late.

So, let the city-planners see more – the ghost of buildings-future, a counterpoint to the utopian propaganda. Let them watch the rough-and-tumble of reality played out in virtual time, without ever risking a brick. Hand over the pitch-perfect images to a crack team of the clumsy and disinterested, the careless and vindictive, the demolition man and graffiti artist. Then wait.

The cartoonish weather of a perfect yellow disk on uniform azure? The first to go. Even the ugliest place can be bleached clean under a summer sun. No, the true test comes in the desolation of a thunderstorm or below the chromatic monotony of clouds, variations on a theme of grey, senses as muted as the palette.

Fast-forward now, through the wear and tear of existence, show homes long forgotten. Once blindingly-white walls are now a dulled and off-putting cream, stained with rusty streaks by the rainwater forever dribbling from the porous gutters. Green moss sprouts here and there, adding an insidious organic trim. Within the reaches of idle hands – for he’s here too – urban murals have occupied every available canvas. This new art ages too, and is itself defaced. Tags, electronic, or not, thrive.

Inside the tower a hooded figure sets his back to the broken closed circuit TV and propels a liquid Slinky down failing steps. Its progress is caught in freeze-frame by half-hearted fluorescent tubes, forever on the verge of getting going, but then never do. Come the evening the remaining strands of piss will have frozen and sent an elderly resident tumbling in the darkness, the lights by then finally given up. Skull split and leaking, his blood will add a welcome contrast to the dreary concrete. The steps, half-crumbled, still  hard enough to break both bone and brain. They’ll break more than that yet.

Outdoors, the three oblivious children who spun a roundabout at gleeful speeds have been replaced man-for-man by older, more sullen sorts who insist on keeping a stationary, furtive council on the rusting, circular steelwork. Of the nearby swings, only one remains whole. Another dangles at a limp half mast, and the last is no longer what it was, its seat long-since propelled through a nearby window. The window, too, is no longer that, but peeling, mottled chipboard.

Fast forward now. Show more and scratch. Fast forward. Play. Forward. We go backward.

Yellow-hatted men probe the tower blocks with high-power drills, infiltrating the concrete skeletons with mile after mile of cable. It must be hooked up, every room, every corridor, every shaft must be connected, the building must be riddled with power. And then the lights go on and it’s a derby. The crowd gasps and cheers even as the dust rushes towards them. Eyes shut, lights out now and everybody home. Brush off the evidence and awake, dazed in a shared hangover. Then think.

Clear the rubble and begin again. Eyes open, brew the tea, and whistle. A perfect pitch.

The Many Surprising Sides of Poetry

When I started this blog, I thought I knew its purpose and intended content. What I didn’t expect was for poetry to play such a large role, least of all that I might find myself reading some in front of an audience! Yet of the 14 posts I have written so far, 5 are poems or are related to poetry.

First came a piece of fiction, Life at Sea, that embodies this whole process, writ small, and charts a gradual descent into verse. This was followed by the analysis of a haiku found quite unexpectedly in a book about classical music, the post Hidden Haiku, Hidden Depth. Further chance discoveries led to me downloading J. Fisher’s intriguing iOS poetry app What We Mean and reviewing it in Do I Say What I Mean?. After this, I found myself writing a poem, which through much effort and editing became Stitch Yellow Quilts, and soon thereafter came a haiku, Eutrophication. If I wished to bolster my argument through dishonest arithmetic, I could even include this article in the count. Make it 6 then.

So it has been a rapid inculcation into the beguiling discipline of poetry, a process that has continued apace; on Tuesday evening I attended, and performed at, my first open-mic poetry reading. The event, Poetry Unplugged – a name that could provoke many surreal fantasies of clockwork poetry robots – is held weekly, at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden, London.

Wander down the darkened street to inquire within – timidly in my case and continually on the verge of mumbling excuses and backing out – and you’ll be encouraged by all the staff to give it a go, on the assurance of meeting with a friendly reception.

Sure enough, I was greeted with raucous applause as promised, an equal treatment to the other performers, though ‘unplugged virgins’ are particularly are well taken care of, and afterwards received another helping of the same. But before you start fantasising of a world organised similarly to the one in Martin Amis’ short story Career Move – a world reversed, in which poets are treated like film stars and their poems eagerly anticipated and developed in a big-budget way, while screenwriters are left to languish in poverty and a state of eternal hope – let me stop you right there.

No, there aren’t any waiting agents, ready to sign you up with an enticing cash bonus and year-long tour of the world’s literary festivals. The biggest financial reward you’ll receive for performing is a £1 discount to the entry fee. Can I mark this as my first literary advance? So there are many incentives. To reference myself, referencing someone, referencing Chekhov, another motivation was the opportunity to acquire additional grist for the blogging mill.

As for my performance? Inevitably, if the one delivered in my head beforehand was a tour de force of emphasis and timing, the reality was a resounding and solid OK. Overall, I think I was a little flat, and missed several stresses that made the poem seem worse than it is. Sorry, poem! But that’s okay, as one of the “old” hands said to me afterwards, I should just come back and read it again but better. And why not, given how much effort went into writing it.

If any poets are reading this, and wondering whether they too should consider public readings of their work, then I would say to them, ‘yes, you should, you must!’ The prospect of reading aloud in front of others, first made me raise my game for fear of looking stupid, a much bigger risk than with a blog post, and secondly, forced me to consider the rhythm of the poem far more carefully. No longer could I let my brain glide serenely past the additional beat as though it weren’t there – the lips aren’t nearly so able to forgive. Equally, those same lips came to the end of a line and carried on moving, but there was nothing for them to say, only ghost words, and so I had to insert extra words here and there to give the rhythm its full space for expression.

You don’t have to take the word of neophyte though, talking to Unplugged’s congenial host Niall O’Sullivan at the end of the night, he revealed that the unconscious editing of poetry that can happen during a performance, particularly if speaking from memory, can be quite astonishing. Words, lines, and sometimes whole verses can disappear. They simply weren’t needed. So, if you’re struggling to edit a poem, maybe this is the answer: memorise, read, and record. Then play it back to discover what your brain has figured out, without you having to think at all. This is mere hypothesis though, has anyone tried this for themselves? Let us know below. Thanks!

Now that I’ve begun, I hope to write more poetry, and every now and again post the shorter ones as a midweek fillip, perhaps saving the longer works for the main, weekly post. And when I’ve got a few new poems stored away I will return to the Poetry Cafe, better prepared this time. Maybe see you there?