The Voice

Well, today is another day and it’s time for me to share with you the ways I work on my speaking voice in order to make my spoken poetry the best it can be.

As I said the other day I not only learn my poems by heart, the speaking is an important part of composition.  How do you know whether a line is right unless you say it aloud?  To me, writing without speaking is like composing music without playing it – you need to know what it sounds like.

For me the voice is key and I work on it like a singer.  I start with some vocal exercises (having done breathing exercises earlier as part of my yoga) which include going through all the sounds in the English language and practising some tongue-twisters.  Then at the moment I’m adding some overtone singing to the mix.  I just came across it and it’s amazing; you find a point in your voice where it actually starts singing in harmony with itself.  If you don’t understand what I mean neither do I really, but it’s a little bit like singing and running a wet finger round a glass at the same time.  Here’s a video about it:

I’ve been doing this for a week or two now and I think I can hear my own overtones but I’m not quite sure.  She recommends doing this in the shower as a bit of background noise helps you to hear it apparently.

When I’ve done my vocal exercises I turn to the actual poems.  It’s important that I refresh my oeuvre every so often because otherwise some poems will drop off the radar and I will forget them.  My aim is to have every poem ready for performance so that I have something for any occasion.  Usually I go through the whole book of recent poems and choose a few from my earlier book, either at random or following a theme, according to how I feel.

It’s hard to pursue the objective of absolute equality between page and verbal performance as people tend to put you in one category or another; like the publishers who returned my poems which I’d sent with the brief bio they requested.  The bio mentioned my performances and their comment was that the rhythm didn’t come across on the page.  I looked at those poems again as dispassionately as I could and I think they read the bio and made up their minds from there.

I have yet to encounter anyone who marries the page and stage with equal expertise: a case in point was a group I saw on Saturday night.  I ought to say at once that they were great; thoroughly entertaining and original (imagine the Sensational Alex Harvey Band doing poetry and you’ll get an idea.)  Led by poet Mark Gwynne Jones they were called Psychic Bread and were unlike any poets I’d ever seen.  And I feel very churlish saying this but in the light of today’s blog post I wonder how the poems come off on the page?  I’ve had a look but can’t find any in the public domain, so without buying a collection I can’t tell you.  But I wonder.

So there it is: there’s a huge gulf between those who write for the page and those who perform on the stage and it’s a very foolish person who tries to bridge it.

That must be my cue to enter…

Kirk out

 

 

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Why Write Poetry?

This is a question which occurs to me often, though perhaps not so often as it occurs to other minds.  What is the point of poetry? they seem to say; or even more damningly, Is poetry even a Thing?  Isn’t it just chopped-up prose?  My acid test for the latter is to suggest they write out a poem in sentences and see if it reads exactly like prose: results have yet to come in on this exercise as I strongly suspect they can’t be arsed.  Once on Thorpe Cloud a man was heard to quote Wordsworth’s Daffodils and bleat: How is that different from ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb?’  How?  In the moment I was stumped because on the surface, it’s not that different; it’s a little like asking how a Joan Miro is different from a child’s daubs: on the surface, they aren’t.

I’m always stumped in the face of such scepticism because to see poetry for what it is demands a degree of openness; it’s not something you can persuade people of by showing evidence.  The earth is flat – no it isn’t, you can see the curvature in a plane, you can see the horizon at sea and you can view the whole sphere from space.  QED.

I’d be the first to admit that Wordsworth’s language is simple; it’s deliberately so because he was emphasising the simplicity of a life lived in harmony with nature.  Some of his ideas seem risible today but he had a strong belief in the tendency of the natural world to produce virtue in human beings.  So given that, let us compare and contrast Daffodils and Mary Had a Little Lamb.

First, the nursery rhyme:

Mary had a little lamb

its fleece was white as snow

and everywhere that Mary went

the lamb was sure to go.

It’s not great poetry and it’s not meant to be; it’s a rhyme for children which according to wikipedia was based on an actual incident:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Had_a_Little_Lamb

The simile is cliched: white as snow offers no surprise or insight and the rest of the rhyme simply tells a story.  I can’t think of anything else to say about it.

Now Daffodils:

I wandered lonely as a cloud

that floats on high o’er vales and hills

when all at once I saw a crowd

a host of golden daffodils

beside the lake, beneath the trees

fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

We are so familiar with this verse that its impact has faded but I would suggest Wordsworth offers us two things here.  If we stop for one minute to consider the image lonely as a cloud it will probably strike us as strong and original; it places the writer (or narrator) as part of the natural scene and yet separate from it.  As a ‘cloud’ he is looking down on the scene below, floating ‘on high o’er vales and hills’: the cloud is also animated, given feelings.  The second idea is the image of daffodils as a ‘crowd, a host’.  Anyone who’s ever looked at great swathes of daffodils swaying in a breeze can’t have failed to notice their resemblance to a crowd of people.  Wordsworth continues with that metaphor in lines to come, so not only is he part of the natural world but the natural world resembles a crowd of people, thus signalling his major theme of connectedness between people and nature.

One may disagree profoundly with Wordsworth’s thesis but I don’t think we can fail to ascribe greatness to his work.

And while we’re on the theme of simplicity, let’s consider another Romantic poet, William Blake.  There’s no tricksiness with words here, no verbal gymnastics or stunning erudition, but consider the power of these couplets:

A robin redbreast in a cage

puts all heaven in a rage.

Or this:

A truth that’s told with bad intent

beats all the lies you can invent.

And we are just as familiar with The Tyger as with Wordsworth’s blooms but I hope no-one would dare compare this to a nursery rhyme:

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright

in the forests of the night

what immortal hand or eye

could frame thy fearful symmetry?

And if you can read these lines without a lump in your throat, there’s no hope for you:

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I

did, till we loved?  Were we not weaned till then?…

and now good morrow to our waking souls…

My face in thine eye, thine in thine appears

and true plain hearts do in the faces rest…

(from John Donne, The Good Morrow)

 

So much for other people’s poetry: now, for my own.  Why do I write poetry?  Like most people I suspect I do it because I must.  I do it because there are times when prose, much as I love it, just doesn’t cut it.  As C S Lewis wrote in his introduction to the Narnia books, you do it because ‘it is the best art form for something you want to say.’

I also do it because poetry connects strongly to the oral tradition.  When I first started to write I assumed I’d write novels and didn’t see myself as a poet at all.  But having found the novel too huge a thing to begin with, I turned to the short story.  Even these didn’t seem quite right, but I still didn’t think of myself as a poet and it wasn’t until I went to Word! poetry performance group in Leicester that I realised spoken word was what I’d been looking for.  I had to travel all the way back to our oral traditions before I could really discover what I was about as a writer.  This seems to me entirely logical.

The oral tradition is key: nowadays I never write a poem without speaking it.  As soon as I have a rough draft I stand up (poetry must always be spoken standing) and read it aloud.  Inevitably there will be bum notes and often fresh words will occur to me as I speak – and so the editing process goes on, sometimes speaking sometimes writing, until I have the finished poem by heart (though I agree wholeheartedly with Auden’s comment that a poem is never finished, only abandoned.)  To me, writing a poem without speaking it aloud is like writing music without playing it: impossible.

I’m going to get on my hobby-horse here because one of my bugbears is poets who kill their work in the reading of it.  Of course not every poet is able to read well, I understand that, but what offends me is the all-too-common attitude that it’s the page which matters and the reading aloud is just some throwaway act; something writers do.  It’s as if the very fact of it being the author’s voice gives some authority and mesmerism to the reading.  It doesn’t.

I don’t get this.  It shows a disrespect for the oral tradition, for a start, and for another thing why would you?  Why would you spend all that time and effort getting the right words in the right order on the page and then destroy them in the reading?  It really bugs me.  I work on my poems all the time, honing each word and phrase in the speaking just as I do in the writing.  I work on my voice too – but now I think I’ve wandered long enough o’er the vales and hills of poetry so I shall come to rest and tell you about that another day.

Kirk out

 

 

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I Love Rejections….

Oh to be on Facebook, now that OH is here!  This is a conversation we had just now about a new pair of glasses:

OH:  Just now I thought my glasses weren’t right, but it was only my eyes doing their thing.

Me:  What thing?

OH:  In bed at night I close one eye when I use the tablet and I think it’s messing with my Nucleus of Edinger-Westphal.

Me:  I think I went there once on holiday.

OH:  I’ve mentioned it before.  I want to know the peak sensitivity wavelength for rod cells.

Me:  Sure; who doesn’t?

That’s the sort of dialogue I usually put on Facebook but now I’m off Facebook for good, or at least until it improves beyond recognition.  In theory I could log in and put up my dialogue and log out again – but would that really be the end of it?  Wouldn’t I go back an a couple of hours to see who’s ‘liked’ or commented?  Wouldn’t I respond to some of those comments?  Wouldn’t those commenters respond to my responses?  Wouldn’t I do a bit of scrolling in between?  And then boom! before you know it, you’re back on Facebook.

Nope: amusing and geeky dialogues will have to remain on this blog.  Anyway, back to today’s topic of rejections.  I had one just this morning as it happens; a poetry collection I’d entered for a competition which wasn’t shortlisted.  The first reaction is like a thump in the chest; the feeling that, as Pooh bear puts it: ‘A Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it’ – or, to translate that into author-speak, you sweat and polish and rub and grind to make your work the best it can be, send it out into the world to seek its fortune and back it comes, rubber-stamped with the words NO THANKS in large unfriendly letters.

Actually today’s rejection was terribly nice and appreciative but it doesn’t matter how much they sugar-coat it, a rejection is a rejection.

So what do you make of it?  I go through a process each time which is not unlike the stages of grief.  First, there’s pain.  There’s no avoiding this and sometimes it hurts a lot, especially if you had a lot invested in the work; but it does get easier with time.  The second stage can be anger, though I’ve managed to bypass this as the urge to write to the publishers telling them where to get off is not one that should be indulged.  So we blow past anger and land on wondering.  Why?  Why didn’t they want to publish my work?  Are they blind?  You rarely get a clue as to why your work has been rejected and being so much in the dark can lead to stage three: paranoia.  Am I really as good as I think?  Should I give this up?  Am I ever going to get anywhere?  Will anyone ever appreciate me?  This stage is not very productive and, like anger, should not be indulged for long: I got a few words of encouragement from OH once he got back from visiting the Islets of Langerhans or wherever he went – and in time the feelings fade.  So those are the stages of rejection-grief, after which you’re ready to pick up your mouse and carry on.

The good news is that the cycle shortens each time: having seen the rejection email twenty minutes ago I’m already into phase four, a process which used to take weeks.  Phase four is What Now? where you’re able to consider more dispassionately what your next move should be.  For me there’s only one answer to this question and that is to carry on working and make it better.  Don’t go back to the rejected work just yet; put it on one side, and focus on something else to send off.

So, in conclusion (and here’s where I get all upbeat and American) I love rejections because without them I’d never have tried harder.  I’d never have rewritten things and made them better.  It’s probably not an overstatement to say that without rejections I’d never have fulfilled my potential (not that I have, yet; I’m still in the process.)  So in the end that’s what I take from it: those poems will be honed and improved until they are the best they can be and then they will be published.  So there.

Kirk out

I Love Deadlines

I know this is not a phrase you hear from many writers but I love deadlines – and not merely for the whooshing noise they make which so entertained Douglas Adams.  I love deadlines because they focus me.  If I have years and years to complete a project I do not, as some sensible folk do, plan it out, break down the work into chunks and do a certain amount per month.  I suspect that isn’t how most writers work either; to judge by the jokes on the subject, a two-year project would consist of eighteen months procrastination, five months fiddling and one month pure panic.  I, on the other hand, need an incentive to get me going and a deadline provides that incentive.  If the end of a project is two years away I’m likely to get bored, but give me a deadline in two months and I’m on it, even if I have no chance of getting finished within that time.  It’s a little like the crisis inducer in The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which brings on a crisis to sharpen your wits when needed.  So what I need is basically a Deadline Inducer to bring on a deadline and sharpen my desire to work: some button I can press which makes a voice in my head say, ‘the deadline’s next Monday!  This has to be in by next Monday!  You need to complete this by the 4th!’ and so on.  Come to think of it, Douglas Adams should have had one of those…

Having said that, the deadline for the radio play has whooshed by without my play being submitted as it became increasingly obvious that the thing was mushrooming and could not be wrestled into shape any time soon.  On the other hand I have sent one short story, three pieces of flash fiction and three poems to various magazines well within their respective deadlines.  So brownie points to me.

Where do I go to get brownie points?

Kirk out

 

New Year, Old You

This time of year the blogosphere bursts with projects, projections, plans, aims and objectives.  Weight will be lost.  Fitness regimes will be instantiated.  Old hobbies will be pursued and new ones taken up.  Ambitions will begin to be realised.  And so forth.  I don’t generally make new year’s resolutions but I do like to make plans for the year which embody a vision of where I want to go.  I don’t feel the need to start a fitness regime because I already do yoga – though more walking couldn’t hurt, so I’ve done a bit of that.

I find walking on my own a very contemplative activity, particularly if it takes me away from my usual environment.  Hence I went for a drive the other day with only the vaguest idea of where I would end up; and where I ended up was Cropston village at the top of the reservoir.  Knowing that the reservoir backs onto Bradgate Park, I formed a scheme: I would walk down to the park and all the way round its perimeter.  Which I did; this being a walk of about six miles all told.  Then yesterday morning, inspired by OH’s new regime which is to go for a run every day at six am (yes, I know) I drove up to Beacon Hill and went for a short but very brisk, cold walk before Quaker meeting.

But the main part of my vision is of course writing; and so I’ve formulated plans for the year involving where I want to be in December and working back from there.  I found a really good idea in Paul McKenna’s book ‘I Can Make You Rich’ which I mentioned a few weeks ago in which he uses visualisations to create a picture of the future.

First on one side you draw a big picture (either on paper or in  your mind) of where you want to be at the end of the year.  On the other side you draw a much smaller picture illustrating where you are now.  Then in between you create pictures which get larger each time creating a timeline between now and the future and illustrating your progress.  I’ve found these to be very powerful.

My aims for this year are to publish (or have accepted) a full-length work; either a novel or a collection of poetry, and to get an agent.  To this end I will send off one thing every month and I will find out the best way to approach agents.  And as far as this blog’s concerned, I’m aiming for 1000 readers.  I know it’s been a bit quiet over Christmas but that’s only to be expected, but we’re back now.  And don’t forget that my 500th follower will receive a FREE volume of my poetry.

So if you’ve enjoyed this blog, tell others.  If you haven’t, tell me (but tell me nicely please.)  And let me know how you’re getting on with your writing projects.

Happy New Year!

Kirk out

 

Blockhead: My Top Tips For Overcoming Writer’s Block

I have previously tried to analyse what writer’s block actually is:

https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2017/06/27/lay-your-head-on-the-writers-block/

and now it’s time to share some of my top tips for dealing with it.  No matter whether it lasts for an afternoon or a year (or longer) writer’s block is painful, debilitating, numbing and horribly frustrating.  Where does it come from?  Where does it go?  It seems to arrive like the wind, out of nowhere, and to disappear equally mysteriously.  Whatever your particular brand of writer’s block, some of these may help:

  1.  Set an alarm and write for 10 minutes without thinking, revising or stopping.  Any old junk that comes into your head is fine.  Don’t even worry about sentences.
  2. Sign up to writing prompts such as writerswrite.co.za
  3. Describe what you can see from your window.  I can see a quiet street with several vehicles parked, one of which has ‘Integrated Building Solutions’ on the side.  I might choose to write about what the hell that means and why everything is a ‘solution’ nowadays instead of saying exactly what it is ie ‘builders.’
  4. Go through old notebooks for any ideas you can harvest.  If you haven’t got any notebooks go out and buy one; there’s nothing like a new notebook for stimulating ideas.
  5. Take one item on your desk and write about its history.  At this moment apart from a laptop, I have two digestive biscuits on my desk.  I could, if I chose, write one of those stories they used to give us at school – The Life-Cycle of the Chocolate Digestive (‘I was made in a factory from flour and sugar…)
  6. Do something else.  Dig the garden, go for a walk, do the washing-up.  The unconscious mind will keep working while the conscious mind is occupied with something else
  7. If all these ideas bore you to tears, recognise that sometimes boredom is necessary and, like land lying fallow, can prove fertile ground for new seeds.

Kirk out

Gigging for Momentum

Momentum in the area of gigs is something I’d really like to have; to swing from one (paid) gig to another, to travel the country bringing emergency poetry to areas of need, to hop on a train down to London one night and up to Nottingham the next, then over to Brum, maybe up to Edinburgh the next week; that’s the life for me.  Swinging from tree to tree…

I’m a poetess and I’m OK;

I gig all night and I write all day

(Before you write in, I dislike the word ‘poetess’ as much as anyone; I just used it for its syllables.)

But until that day comes I must content myself with a gig for Momentum.  This happened on Sunday at the Criterion in Leicester:

https://bit.ly/2Ri5MMO

a venerable pub with plenty of good beer (alas, I was driving so had none) and a separate music room.  It was a good afternoon with a mix of musicians and poets: I met some old friends and encountered a new poet, Will Horspool, whose poetry I enjoyed.  Myself, Bobba, Richard Byrt and Will were the poets and Steve Cartwright, Sheila Mosley and Paul (sorry Paul I forgot your last name) the musicians.  It was a game of two halves with each of us having a ten-minute set in each half.

I have now finished Stephen Fry’s ‘The Ode Less Travelled’ and begun my poetry journal.  This is proving very useful as I can record not only what I’ve done in terms of practising and writing, but the thoughts and ideas which occur while I’m practising and writing.  These are many and varied and writing them down is a good way to begin organising them.  To my intense relief Fry says ‘Please do not send me your poems.’  He is terribly polite about not having the time to read them, and it releases me from any compulsion I might otherwise have felt to send him a sonnet I’d written in response to one of his prompts.  However in case he should stop by this blog for a moment, I’ll reproduce it below.

The poems for Momentum were:

Spike (written for Sound Cafe)

A Hostile Environment (about the effects of austerity on the poor)

Spirit of ’44

More in Common (for Jo Cox)

Poet-Tree, a peace poem

and The Lady in the Van.

These were well-received.

The sonnet prompt in Fry’s book was to write about voting in elections from two opposing points of view.  This is the first sonnet, exhorting people to vote – the second is a work in progress, probably because my heart isn’t in it (if you’re interested, this one is based on Wordsworth’s poem about Milton:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45528/london-1802

On Voter Apathy

Voter!  Thou should’st be living at this last

hour, for all the signs say life’s expired

x does not mark the spot: you can’t be arsed

for apathy is tiredness beyond tired.

Arise!  The ballot box hath need of thee

thy paper crossed and folded but complete

your vote could be the one to change the MP

take part instead of voting with your seat.

La politique s’occupe de vous, said Jean-Paul;

he’s right: not voting now is voting Tory

to sofa-sit effects no change at all

you have the power – now go get the glory.

They fought for this, the people of our nation

sometimes a right implies an obligation.

(c) Liz Gray, 2018

Kirk out