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.

First Light, Final Thought

Over Christmas, whilst visiting my parents, I spotted the book First Light by Geoffrey Wellum on my bookshelves at home. I first read this WW2 memoir a few years ago, and it is an excellent, moving portrayal of life as an RAF pilot during that period. In 2010 the book was turned into a drama-documentary shown on BBC2 . I highly recommend both of them, however, rather than now, somewhat belatedly, giving a detailed review of the book, I instead want to relate a key impression of his extraordinary story that has lingered with me.

The memory I have is a quote that, oddly enough, isn’t actually from the book, but rather from an interview with Geoffrey Wellum that appeared in the Independent newspaper. When asked, by journalist Julia Llewellyn Smith, why he had written the memoir, he gave the following reply:

“I just wanted to sit quietly and convince myself that at some point in my life I had been of use.”

Having read his account of his extraordinarily intense military service of several years, including fighting in the Battle of Britain, it is incredible to think that he could ever have had any doubts on this point. These haunting words have stayed with me almost verbatim ever since, a testament to their power, and, even now, I struggle to think of a more raw or poignant summary of the question of life than them.

Note: the interview in the Independent seems to be currently unavailable online, but the quote is reproduced in this blog, Place to Land.