Category Archives: poems

Lay Your Head on the Writer’s Block

I’m never quite sure what writer’s block is.  I know it refers to an inability to write, but what actually counts as writer’s block?  If you sit staring at a screen for hours without writing a word, does that count?  Or is that too short a time?  Does it have to last at least a few days or weeks before you can call it writer’s block?  And when I wasn’t writing at all between the ages of eight and twenty-four, was that writer’s block?  Or was it a crisis of identity?

Aside from the question of how long it lasts, what kind of thing is writer’s block?  Is it the complete inability to write a single word?  Or does it mean you don’t write anything you’re remotely satisfied with?  If it’s the latter, I’m in trouble – because ‘not remotely satisfied’ describes nearly every day’s work for me.  But if it’s the former I’m OK because most days I manage to write something, even if it’s only a blog post.  Which is why I’m so glad I have this blog, because on really bad days where I can’t string two morphemes together, I can at least manacle a blog post into position, run it up the flag and see if anyone salutes it.  A blog post is usually less than 500 words; it’s achievable and, with the click of a button, it’s published and ready to read.

OH has an interesting view on overcoming writer’s block.  In the same way that Michelangelo saw the sculpture as being hidden within the stone

https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/michelange386296.html

you could regard writing as ‘taking away’ everything which is not the story.  I’m not sure how cutting things away works when faced with a blank page rather than a lump of rock, but it’s worth thinking about. *

In ‘His Dark Materials’, Phillip Pullman wrote of the subtle knife which cuts windows between different worlds, ‘you may have intentions but the knife has its own intentions.’

http://www.kidsreads.com/reviews/the-subtle-knife

This is an idea I try to bear in mind when writing a poem; that when writing I may have intentions, but the poem has its own intentions too.  Nevertheless, the blank page can be a very intimidating thing to overcome, so when I have a bad day and think all my thoughts are worthless, I try just to write, believing that anything is better than nothing and reminding myself without a first draft there can be no second draft, no finished version.

I guess the process of writing is hard to fathom, else there would be no such thing as writer’s block.  But it’s clear that writing begins with thought.  Thoughts occur in the mind, and the writer selects which of them to commit to paper: so maybe writer’s block begins here, at the level of thought.  When the mind is a blank, the page will be a blank.  However, in my experience what is more likely going on is that the mind is not producing anything your critical self deems worthy of using; hence a good exercise when blocked is to write whatever comes into your mind, no matter how nonsensical or seemingly worthless.  James Joyce did this, and look what he managed to produce just listening to the babbling of his mind!

Interesting things happen when we let go of controlling our thoughts.  And out of this arises poetry.

And I know it’s not the day for linking to it, but I’m going to link here to the Insecure Writers Support Group because this post is relevant.

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/

Kirk out

*Sounds like some bizarre version of scissors, paper, stone…

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Gosh, That Was a Busy Day

Yesterday proved unexpectedly busy, what with going to the Utilise Social Cafe and then to a canvassing training session by the Labour Party.  Those were the planned events; but on my way home from the cafe I ran into Jan parking her bike.  This happens a lot these days, since she’s in Loughborough every Saturday, and it fell out that she was on her way to a pub.  Who am I to resist the promptings of fate?  I promptly fell in with her and accepted the generous offer of a drink, which took care of the intervening time until I went to Unity Building for the canvassing.

Canvassing is something I’ve often thought about doing but was too afraid to ask, the thought of knocking on people’s doors and asking them to vote for us being somewhat daunting.  So it was good to have some training in this area and next week I will be going out with some other reddish bods and doing it for real.

After the canvassing came another unplanned event.  At the cafe I got talking to a couple of women who go there, and they told me about a demo that afternoon against racism and for – well, peace and harmony and stuff.  I’m aware that this sounds a bit like Neil from The Young Ones, but there it is.  About half a dozen white British people and twenty or so Muslims turned up to stand around a banner and chant at the passers-by and marketeers who were packing up the Loughborough market.  I made up a couple of chants which were generally admired.  Well, I am a poet after all…

I shall be doing a write-up on this for the Loughborough Echo, exhorting people to stop tarring all Muslims with the same brush.  (Not you guys – I know you would never do anything so crass.)

So that was yesterday.  And a jolly good Saturday it was too.  Today I shall be mostly… going to Quaker meeting and then heading off for lunch to celebrate Alan’s birthday.

Kirk out

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The Year of Sitting Comfortably

Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I’ll begin.

You will only recognise those words if you are a) Old Like Me or b) young and into cultural irony like my son: I continue to be amazed at how much stuff from my youth he recognises because it’s referenced in things he watches.  Anyway, are you sitting comfortably?

Then I’ll begin: because today’s post is about the lost art of storytelling – by which I mean the old oral tradition of face-to-face narration (I realise plenty of stories are being told in print or on film.  Incidentally, remind me to post a review of La La Land.  I saw it on Friday and it is beyond description, but I’ll try.)

What started me off on this was – well, first of all it was because the title came to me and secondly because there is in Loughborough library a storytelling chair.  It’s large enough for one adult and one child, and it’s decorated with ladybirds.  Lovely, I thought, just right for a parent to read to a child.  And then I discovered that it’s actually an electronic chair: you sit in it and it tells you stories – and that seemed sad to me.  It seemed alienating and distancing – and moreover, a waste of money, especially as the funds had been raised by Friends of the Library and could have been spent on an ordinary comfy chair destined for face-to-face storytelling.

One of the first TV programmes I ever watched after we got our first black-and-white set was ‘Jackanory.’  This was a storytelling programme and as with all TV programmes, sitting comfortably was a prerequisite.  Jackanory went on for years and featured famous actors and actresses reading from a book, interspersed with pictures.  It was a simple but effective format.  Nowadays we have to turn to the radio for storytelling, but once every two months I go with Ruth to a group called Telling Tales.  The Leicestershire Guild of Storytellers puts on this event in Leicester and it features a mix of traditional and modern tales from a huge variety of cultures.  Last week we had stories from India, Norway, Germany and Iran, as well as my own largely descriptive account of the garden of the vicarage where I grew up.  I love telling stories and hearing them, and it is my firm belief that we need a return to our oral traditions; to go back to face-to-face storytelling.

And poetry, of course.

Kirk out

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Cancel the Helium Balloons

I came across some advice recently on a writers’ blog, about handling your first book signing.  I was briefly interested as this is likely to happen to me at some point, but I don’t know what I expected.  Hints on how to interact with readers, perhaps; how to sign a thousand books without getting cramp; how to respond to difficult questions or prolonged conversations – maybe even how to deal with critical comments.  But none of these figured at all.  Instead the points were these:

  1. get your helium balloons inflated early
  2. if you are an introvert, take breaks from people
  3. dress comfortably
  4. iron the table-cloth
  5. if you bring bags of bite-size candy to give it away, bring scissors to cut the bag.

Wow.  I confess to being a bit gob-smacked by all of this.  OK so the word ‘candy’ gives away the transatlantic location; but you could just as well be organising a birthday party or a jamboree; there’s no reference whatsoever to books or fiction or signing or interacting with readers.  And it made me very depressed.  So here are my plans:

At my first book-signing there will be no bite-sized candy to give away; instead there will be bite-sized poetry.

At my first book-signing there will be no tablecloth.  I will wear comfortable clothes but they probably won’t be ironed.

At my first book-signing there will be books and there will be live poetry.

At my book signing there will be conversation and dialogue.  There will be meetings of minds.  There will be interaction between me and my readers, whom I will be interested and happy to meet, even if they are critical.

At my first book-signing I will sign books.

And you can cancel the helium balloons.   We won’t be needing them…

Kirk out

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The Prince of Paradox

There’s going to be a lot of Cohen on this blog in the coming days, so hang onto your hats just as he is in this photo:

The thing I want to write about today is his gift for presenting paradox.  As first of all a Jew and later a Zen Buddhist, Cohen was very drawn to what he saw as the paradoxes inherent in human life; and today’s song illustrates this beautifully – as well as being utterly timely.  In fact it’s tempting to wonder whether the election of the man whom I shall refer to only as Mr T, is what convinced him to go.  My tribute to this side of his work is very short: as I have said, Leonard was a guru of sorts for me; someone who seemed to show the way – or a way – to be an artist in this world, to handle fame graciously whilst never compromising in following his own voice.  That above all is what I respected in him.  Anyway, Leonard was the perfect guru for me because he would never had wanted to be anyone’s guru.  So that makes him perfect for someone like me, because like the Groucho Marx of discipleship, I would never choose for a guru, someone who actually wanted to be one.  So here’s my little wild bouquet for today:

Guru

Leonard
you taught me to embrace paradox
with both hands tied
behind my back.

He also taught self-deprecation.  This was a hallmark of his public style right from the sixties – when it was fashionable – through the nineties and after, when it most certainly wasn’t.  When every other performer was relentlessly engaged in self-promotion he undercut himself with jokes.  He was famous for being gloomy, but this was most unfair.  A lot of his songs are full of jokes, and when interviewed he had the journalists in stitches with his wry, self-deprecating humour.

So here’s today’s song.  I hope you find it as funny and as timely as I do:

And it may well be from the very concert we were at!

Kirk out

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There Are No Words

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There are no words, and yet I must find some; unpack my heart with them for the news broke today that he is dead.  The most bizarre of gurus, the poet of song, the soldier of the heart, has died.  We don’t know how, we don’t know why – but he knew that he was going.  He wrote to Marianne that he would soon follow her and he said on the release of his new album ‘You Want it Darker’ (and I have to wait till Christmas to get it!  Sob!) that he was ready to die – though he afterwards joked that he’d spoken to soon.  ‘I’m going to live to 120,’ he declared.

He was 82.  I’m not going to give a run-down of his career here; you can read that in a hundred other places.  I’m just going to talk about what he meant to me.  And this is only possible in poetry.

On some other plane we met

because your heart touched mine

where frozen roses can’t forget

in aisle number 9

I couldn’t reach to touch your arm

your elbow was too long

only let me listen

to your eternal song.

(c) Sarada Gray 2010

Leonard was a kind of guru for many; the type of person who inspired followers as well as fans for the way in which he lived his life.  If ever I’m trying to think my way through a poetry-related situation, I ask myself ‘what would Leonard do?’ and usually an answer comes.  His devotion to art was total; he sacrificed everything to it and, in his own words, ended up ‘on his hands and knees at 3 a m pursuing a lyric.’

Tribute

Leonard

you have so many flowers

you don’t need my wild bouquet

and the ceasing of your powers

has struck our souls today

I’ll never get to tell you

how I suffered for your art,

but I think you would have smiled at that –

you soldier of the heart.

Leonard was always interesting.  You never knew what he would do next because he never knew what he would do next.  His career never followed a set pattern; it started and stopped; and just when you thought he’d never perform again, his agent and lover stole all his money and he had to hit the road.  It was this heartbreaking event (and the name of Kelly Lynch will go down in infamy, though he wouldn’t want us to remember it) that triggered some of his best work and led to something much, much more than just a second wind.  He continued writing and performing almost until the end, though in the last few years he clearly did not have strength to go on tour.

We saw him last in 2008.  He was 75 then; he did several encores and ended the concert by skipping off the stage!  I hope I do as well as he when I am that age.  The cover of ‘Popular Problems’ has a picture of him sitting in tailor’s pose cleaning some shoes.  He looks utterly comfortable.

I don’t have time and space yet to say all that he meant to me.  Maybe there won’t be enough time or space ever; but here’s another poem directly inspired by his work:

Last Day of Summer, October 2010

It’s four in the evening

the end of October

the lights drawing on

as the summer grows sober

the frost is far-off

and the ice by an age

your famous blue raincoat

is sweating on stage

the leaves fallen down

the sun sinking low

when will it be perishing?

When will it snow?

The autumn’s a mimic

it parodies summer

the chill is a gimmick

it sweats like a mummer

and the dove

came

down with a branch in its beak

to give up to the meek

well I see God’s away

it’s the end of the week

(c) Sarada Gray, 2010

This poem is far from finished but it’s one of the few I’ve written that are more directly inspired by Cohen.  Truth be told, it’s impossible to say how he has influenced me, as it’s impossible to trace the course of a virus.  When did it start?  I first heard him in 1972, but maybe I contracted the infection before that.  Who knows?  But he got into my blood and there he stayed.

I am not Leonard; I am perhaps not much like him at all.  But the best way to honour someone who inspired you is, in the end, to write exactly like yourself.

RIP Leonard, we love you.

Kirk out

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Insecure Wednesday

Yes, it’s the first Wednesday of the month and time to be insecure again – and this month the question we insecure writers are asked to consider is, ‘What is your favourite aspect of being a writer?’

http://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com

Well I guess for me, my favourite aspect is the tremendous sense of liberation which comes from ‘unpacking the heart.’  That phrase is used rather disparagingly by Hamlet, but for me it’s an opening, a freedom; not so much a road as a river that you follow, never knowing where it may lead you.  Each day is a surprise and although it is often hard, just as following the course of a river is hard and can lead you into ravines and over rugged rocks; when you finally break through, the experience is stunning.

I never know where I’m going and I like it that way.  Looking back you find a sense of rhythm and purpose but at the time it often makes no sense: all you can do is pursue that infuriating river that twists and winds, falls and rises, expands to a sea and contracts almost to nothing.  It’s like Leonard Cohen once said: it starts off easy but then you’re on your hands and knees at 3 am trying to pursue a lyric.

OK so now I realise I’m getting away from the good stuff and talking about the difficulties.  But you can’t have one without the other folks!

Speaking of Hamlet, there was a guy on the radio the other day who claimed that the supposed universality of Shakespeare was all down to a conspiracy by the RSC.  Sounds a bit far-fetched to me…

Happy (and hard) writing!

Kirk out

 

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