Five Ice Cream Vans

A frosted sky makes gentle diffuse sun,
that soothes this politicians’ bridge.

And there five ice cream vans idle,
tune nothing but a childhood hum.

Above, the dandelion Eye looks on,
and each of us circles around one thought:

where have all the people gone?

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?

Stitch Yellow Quilts

Today’s post was inspired by a conversation I had recently with a fellow writer. I hope that they, and all other writers who read this blog, find some encouragement in it (and if so, please share with others). First though, a disclaimer. This poem is, apart from a couple of verses at the end of Life at Sea, the first I’ve ever written, and certainly the first time I’ve tried to express myself wholly through verse. With that in mind I must stoop ungracefully to some special pleading. Please read with a generous heart, and let my good intentions compensate for any lack of flair or technical sophistication. To reiterate, this poem was not designed merely to be decorative; I hope it fulfils its intended function. So here it is:

Stitch Yellow Quilts

You told me that you
once wrote,
some chapters of a book.
Now set aside,
they lay half-hidden,
closed echoes of ideas.

And so today, begin again.
Put pen to paper,
record your pain,
transfigured
now through laughs,
darkly uttered.

Write your reality,
bright future, or sad past.
Breathe epic novel,
or brief haikus.
Collect the small moments,
put them to good use.

Reclaim the night and
with distant focus,
stare.
Animate your dreams,
take to the street and write,
hoarse voice upon blank air.

Peel post-it notes,
and stitch yellow quilts;
patchwork stories
stuck piece by piece.

Spill one word,
let ten more drop.
Set to rest
now and then,
what should we call them:
a writer’s dozen?

But in the end,
write because
you can,
for fun.
Write, now,
and don’t ever stop.

As I mentioned before, this is really the first poem that I’ve written, and done so mainly from gut instinct about what sounds good and not. I would therefore welcome any useful feedback and advice from those better versed in the ways of poetry than I. Thank you!

Andrew.

Do I Say What I Mean?

I’ve been blogging for one month now, and it’s been an enjoyable experience so far. One aspect which takes a little acclimatisation is the sharing of thoughts with strangers, and I’m still not completely sure of how open I want to, or should, be. Some bloggers seem very comfortable revealing a lot of personal, even intimate, detail, to a degree that I doubt I’ll ever reproduce. Reflecting on this made me think about how we censor ourselves, and just how much of our meaning, or what we might potentially say, is obscured by this middleman of self-control.

Are we limiting ourselves in some way, or is this editing process actually converting our true, unwieldy thoughts into something comprehensible, something fixed and definite enough that the reader can grasp and understand it, without needing to perform an excess of detective work or a psychoanalysis of the author’s mental state.

This transformation of intent, of meaning, of what we intend to mean, is illustrated beautifully in the fascinating iPhone and Android app What We Mean, created by writer, poet and app developer Joshua Fisher . In his own words:

What We Mean is a poetry chapbook and creative application. Composed using love letters written between his grandmother and grandfather during World War 2, J. A. Fisher presents 20 blackout poems. In an effort to simulate a poetic War Department Censurer, Mr. Fisher redacted sections of his grandfather’s letters into poetry.

If we were to take J. Fisher literally, then what is he saying by censoring his grandfather? And who is to be protected by this act? Or alternatively, what is it that is to be presented in a more favourable light? Ultimately nothing, for we know he’s only playing after all, the original version is there for any and all who wish to see.

Or is it? How can we be sure? I wonder how strong the temptation was to pre-censor and to pre-process the letters so as to make them more amenable to later poetic reinterpretation or merely to protect some intimate family confidence. But if the difficulties of expressing one’s own feelings on a blog are grave enough, it is quite another thing to express those of someone else – do it with reckless abandon or utter restraint? Possibly the only, or best, way that it can be done is with honesty and purity of purpose, and it seems to me that he has honoured the memory of his grandparents. The writing in the letters is good enough to stand on its own merits, and deserves its showing in the app. Furthermore I think he is lucky to have had such good source material with which to work, as without it the task would surely have been much harder.

The idea of producing new texts from old, via a selective editing, isn’t an original concept, but what before might have seemed a rather formal concept, or mere demonstration of an artistic principle or technique (and one possibly loaded with more significance than really it deserved) is in this context rather more poignant. Whether this is mere sentimentality, and whether this affects our judgement of the final works or not, is an open question. Possibly it is one that could be answered by controlled experiments.

One interesting aspect of the app, from a user interface design perspective, is that several parts of it force the user to slow down, and even wait a few seconds. If this were a productivity app, it would simply be bad design, but in the context of reading poetry, it does us many favours. We are encouraged to take our time, to savour the words and reflect on their meaning, rather than furiously tapping onto the next poem, and the next, and the next, until the task of poetry reading is completed and can be crossed off our to-do list.

I don’t want to spoil the surprise of using the app, so I will only talk in specifics about one of the twenty poems. This is Inhale Often which contained a particularly touching sentiment. In the letter the author confesses to his wife:

I know I should write about how much I love you more often than I do, but honey you understand don’t you? Writing about it everyday is like writing about the fact that I’m still breathing.

In the poem the letter is rendered thus:

it takes a lot of doing for a guy
like me to be worth your
sweet
understanding

writing about it is like breathing

Reading the other poems, it’s interesting to note that some of them are merely a concentrated form of the original letter, as though any impure words have been removed by distillation, preserving the meaning of the base text, yet expressing it more elegantly. Switching between the redacted letter and the original text brings home the potential power of this process of elimination.

Yet other poems transform the meaning entirely, to construct whole new narratives, using the constraint provided by a fixed palette of words to inspire the creative process. I suppose that this is at once both easier and more difficult than writing poetry with the dictionary as your source material.

The re-imagining of his grandparents words, making them speak anew, could have been a tricky exercise, fraught with responsibility and special sensitivities, but I think J. Fisher has carried it off with aplomb.

So why not download What We Mean yourself (it’s free!) and share your impressions below?

Note: In the interests of full disclosure I have no connections to J. Fisher.

Hidden Haiku, Hidden Depth

Perhaps this is what Guy Debord and the Letterists were trying to achieve with dérive, purposefully using an incorrect map to artistically navigate a city – to arrive at a destination, other than the one desired, but that might prove to be of equal or greater artistic value than the intended original. If it has a literary equivalent, then it happened to me when I was reading a book about Arvo Pärt (Oxford Studies of Composers: Arvo Pärt by Paul Hillier), and learning about all the things I had expected to from such a book: his biography, music theory, minimalism. What I hadn’t expected to read was:

The sound is clear
And reaches the Big Dipper-
Someone pounding cloth.

Simply stunning.

The contrast in scales between the galactic and the solitary human, and the percussive linking of the two into the ending of perfect abruptness, floored me, and I sat silently for a couple of minutes trying to digest those three simple lines.

This particular haiku was written by Matsuo Bashō, master of the form, and the translation is by Ueda. I tried to find a link to it online and came across this alternative version instead:

so clear the sound
echoes to the Big Dipper
the fulling block

It’s elegant, yes, but I feel it lacks the power of the Ueda version. The first two lines seem virtually interchangeable, but it’s in that last line, in the final three words, that the difference lies. Three words, such fine tolerances, but actually, the margins are even finer than that; I think it’s a single word that has it.

Someone.

You or I, him or her, one person who could be any one of us, performing a task so mundane and, because of that, universal, so that it opens communication to the universe, to the entire history of humanity. Take away the human actor, and it reduces to a remote observation of dispassionate significance.

And so it was that I set out to learn about one man and his music, and ended up learning about writing, and a great deal more besides.

Note: a fulling block is a wooden mallet that was used to beat the cloth to help dry and soften it.

Life at Sea

I’ve been on many pleasant coastal walks around the UK, particularly in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, and despite the company of friends or family, and quite often to their complaint, I find myself drawn into a silent contemplation. The vast emptiness of the sea seems to soak up all of my attention, and no matter how much is given, it’ll always absorb a little more.

But it’s not just the seascape that draws the eyes. Inland sit an abundance of curious treasures. Abandoned relics of wars past dot the landscape, concrete bunkers and pillboxes that sit on their haunches, nestled into the contours of the rock, or that lay camouflaged and overrun by nettles and brambles.

Standing tall in plain sight are military observation posts that look out to sea, already close to the cliff’s edge, they now appear to back away from the crumbling rock face, imperilled not by the army of some distant nation, but the entropic forces of wind and water. No amount of watchtowers will save the cliffs from that.

This wild frontier with the sea undulates continuously, and every now and again the path descends completely, taking you down to the level of the sea, to reveal a small bay. Flanked by rising cliffs, in the centre a beach of golden sand lightly speckled with ocean detritus. Here and there you find the translucent empty shells of dead crabs, fragile to the touch, while the pillaged homes of limpets sit beside, tiny mountains cosseted on a bed of crushed rock.

The insistent fizzing of the breaking surf provides an accompaniment to the viewing of this scenery, but it’s a soothing soundtrack, the energy of the waves diminished and spent against the cobbled harbour wall. A few small fishing boats nestle against it, sheltering from the dormant fury of the sea, which anger is only hinted at in the ripples of the water’s surface; an implied threat, softened by the play of sunlight on liquid, the ripples alternately catching, then propelling the sunlight.

Atop the harbour wall sits an unsteady pile of lobsters pots, empty of prey and overrun with unkempt beards of wispy green seaweed. A rope, of an artificially-blue nylon, coarse and splintering, binds these cages to a line of orange marker buoys. Beaten by the weather, they have become punctured footballs, faded in patches to a sickly pink.

Beyond the confines of the wall, a little further out to sea, there floats a larger buoy. A red steel cylinder it has the appearance of a WW2 bomb that was caught frozen as it pierced the water, and that must now bob impotently and unexploded. And this is where I begin to anthropomorphise, to imbue the buoy with human possibilities. How could I not? For I see a buoy, anchored and bound, condemned to stay in place, fixed there by forces outside its control or comprehension.

And once started, how to stop? Imagine now a face painted onto the buoy, daubed there by a weary sailor or his excited son. The features are simple, cartoonish, goofy looking, and so it animates, squirming into life. Doleful black and white eyes scan the waterline for evidence of another of its kind. For understanding.

The buoy rocks gently from side to side, propelled by that corrective force, buoyancy, and each time initiates a small train of ripples, a continual communication with the world, a sign of life. Its heartbeat counting out the time of existence, of a life at sea.

And as for us, bad weather is unwelcome. To shut his eyes brings relief from the insidious salt, yet the torment of uncertainty, of not knowing, is worse, and he must face the waves head on and stare unblinking into the enveloping green water.

Everyday here is different, and yet the same, until finally, an unwelcome change. Surveying his skin, he notices a blister of paint below his right eye, a low rise bubble, grown under cover of night. He stares at it constantly, seeing it grow daily, eyes helpless as his red skin weakens, until finally it splits to expose raw steel. Steel gives way to rust, the rust gives way completely. Only a hole remains, through which each wave brings the outside in.

Swaying buoy, lurching buoy, full up now, all movements slowed.
Drunken capsize, and fast descent. Vanishing sky, one blue swapped for another,
darker,
but darker.

Boy, boy,
drowning then?
Bubbles spew,
last sign of life.

Boy, boy,
sink alone,
gurgl’d goodbye,
last flare of hope.

There never was.