In praise of nothing

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Li Yuan-chia, ‘Monochrome White Painting’ 1963

 

I  wish you every happiness for the new year.

On the last day of the year I attempted a deathless piece about 2016. But in trying to write it, I kept descending into pompous windbaggery. My conclusion was that kindness is good, and that treating people with common decency is a rebellious act. And blah, blah, blah-blah… I spare you the long version.

Sometimes saying nothing is okay, isn’t it?  Preferable when what you have to say is barely worth saying. Often I read things in social media, and blogs like this, and I literally would rather have read nothing. It happens with poems sometimes too. It’s quite a good test.

I discovered through the power of google that someone called Sheridan Simove has made lots of money from selling a book with blank pages called What Every Man Thinks About Apart From Sex. I might think this is a pretty weak joke, but I expect Simove laughed all the way to the bank thanks to nothing.

Is laughing at nothing, the same as highbrow art that frames nothing? Such as John Cage’s 4’33”or the Chinese born UK painter and poet Li Yuan-chia’s 1963 painting above. I know people who have found John Cage’s piece to be hilarious.

One reason I am still under the spell of Samuel Beckett is that his work is full of people in various kinds of limbo doing nothing. In Waiting for Godot or sitting in dustbins like in Endgame or just mouthing into the void in Not I. As Beckett said, in possibly my favourite quote of all time (from Malone Dies), “Nothing is more real than nothing”.

*   *   *

I really liked Robin Houghton’s recent blog post discussing Facebook. She is going on a Facebook detox for at least a month, and gives good reasons.

For my part, when a social media platform becomes an intermediary, with algorithms I don’t understand, it may be time to reassess. Robin talks about having more face time and actual connections with her friends, and I couldn’t agree more.

*   *   *

Curmudgeon that I am, I find January bleak. So imagine my surprise when on January 1st the pleasingly austere postmodern site E·ratio  went live and included one of my, ah-hem, postmodern poems  An explication of three Light Age texts. Also on January 1st I heard from J.K. Shawhan, the editor of an interesting Irish site called The Basil O’Flaherty  who kindly took four poems to be uploaded in March.

All very weird. Could 2017 turn out fine after all? I hope so.

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The magnetism of the mise-en-scène

In The Cinema by Stephen Bone, published by Playdead Press

screen-shot-2016-12-17-at-15-21-00I bought a copy of In The Cinema at the end of last year, and find these poems have lingered in my mind longer than most. It was the careful mise-en-scène in several of the poems,  which first began to intrigue me. Stephen Bone’s choices of objects lends the poems a distinct, slightly down-at-heel 1960s atmosphere. There’s a Baby Belling cooker discovered in an attic, a woman’s ‘perspiration dampening her Yardley powder’ we glimpse a mouth ‘full blown with Victory Red’, or Victory V liquorice lozenges and so on.

Of course care in the description of objects is a characteristic of good writing. But there is something especially charged about this technique in In The Cinema;  noticing objects as a displacement from something disturbing, or how anxiety makes us map subjective anxieties onto external objects. For me it is the first poem in this collection, Coal Tar, which best condenses this aspect of Stephen Bone’s work.

Coal Tar

Still available. A throwback
to cigarette cards and iodine
Victory Vs. Spit and polish.

The soap, my aunt, who wasn’t,
scrubbed herself with
as if she were a stain.
Her water hard and scalding.

Used to ease her father’s
signet ring from her finger
on hot airtight days

and on me the time I slipped up.
I have never forgotten
the froth, the taste

or the way she set down
a tablet in the lodger’s bathroom
beside the copper taps,
like an unwritten house rule.

An orange threat.

(Coal Tar)

This also nicely demonstrates the poet’s ability to pose more questions than he answers. If she’s not ‘my aunt’ then who is she? And why does she scrub herself like a stain? What had been said to warrant such a mouth-scrubbing punishment?

In  Attic, meanwhile, one of the objects literally contains the essence of another person, ‘A yellow beach ball//still limply holding/his father’s breath.’

In Picnic, the trigger objects are photographs that ‘turn up now and then‘.  A typical example of In The Cinema’s understated but pervading sadness:

you standing on your hands
claiming you were holding up the world;

and the other moments,
the wasp attack, the freak shower.

Have you your photos somewhere?

(Picnic)

This polite understatement acknowledges the hurt below, but also represents the coping mechanism. This sort of thing is unfashionable at the moment. We live in a time when some much of the focus of politics is on the  personal, which permits many to shout louder and louder in a hierarchy of suffering.  But I find this understatement refreshing.

In Rain, in the middle of a heatwave, and a time in the UK when water was rationed. This rare event comes to stand for an unrepeatable summer.

Water precious as silver we shared baths
where we stopped or dipped flannels into feeble streams;

at night our skin a layer too much
as we sprawled or tangled on sepia grass.

Set To Continue, the news stands read.
The forecast held. In part.

(Rain)

I hope Stephen Bone is set to continue too, as I enjoy his quietly-persuasive work.

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A golden moment

There is a section of A Glass of Nothing where Beth is transformed into the world’s most beautiful woman and goes into the audience, requests a phone and takes a selfie. I just love this pic taken last night at the Marlborough Theatre.

Our wee two-day run of We Three Kings and A Glass of Nothing is over. Brighton Blonde Productions will be back in the new year, not least with taking A Glass of Nothing to Edinburgh. Running A Glass of Nothing again, in a slightly trimmed version for me was a proof of concept. With Beth shining at its centre, this is a piece I am truly proud of.

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Beth Symons in ‘A Glass of Nothing’

The cast of We Three Kings a few minutes before the start of the show. Left to right, James Kuszewski, Kitty Underhill, Beth Symons, and Dylan Corbett-Bader. We Three Kings is a half an hour twisted nativity play with hope in its heart, and these are the people who made its hope shine.

 

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James Kuszewski, Kitty Underhill, Beth Symons, Dylan Corbett-Bader in ‘We Three Kings’

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First night tonight at The Marlborough

So the first night of our double bill, We Three Kings, and A Glass of Nothing is tonight at the Marlborough Theatre. Till the evening comes, I feel in limbo. We’ve had long rehearsals over the last few days. Our tech rehearsal was last night. It certainly focuses your mind and clenches the bowels when the stage is lit and dressed, and people are in costume. Tonight sees the first performance of We Three Kings so I am slightly terrified. Being very confident about A Glass of Nothing helps a lot, however.

There are still a few seats available on the door should lovers of dark comedy want to come on impulse. The Marlborough Theatre deets are here.

Being in The Marlborough theatre reminded me of the first time I was there seven years ago for a meeting about something completely different. I snuck onto the stage, and just soaked up the atmosphere of the empty theatre. Unexpectedly, I had a powerful feeling of homecoming.

My first flirtation with writing for theatre was sparked by my friend Timothy Gallagher. It culminated in us staging plays we had written at the Water Rats Theatre in London. Tim was like an infuriatingly talented older brother. But as his death loomed (of AIDs at the age of 37) I shelved my work and focused on helping him stage his own plays. Sometimes he would check out of hospital, get a cab and perform at a venue I’d helped sort out, then go back to the ward. His performances, seen by very few, were electric.

I took me about fifteen years to realise I had been experiencing survivor’s guilt. I didn’t understand at the time, why I was no longer able to face theatre or even poetry readings for about ten years. So I will be thinking of Tim tonight, but in a happy way. And thanking my lucky stars that I worked my way back to theatre again. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of witnessing an entire world being conjured up on stage. It an act of magic. And when people are laughing at a line you’ve written, to be the writer sitting in the audience is a fine thing.

A snap from rehearsals two days ago. James Kuszewski fascinating Beth Symons with a walking stick.

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Time to shine

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After a six hour rehearsal, a snap taken last night in The Duke of Wellington whose rehearsal room we are using. Left to right, James Kuszewski, Dylan Corbett-Bader, Kitty Underhill and Beth Symons all with well deserved cookie accessories. I think their performances are peaking at just the right time. Beth has struck the balance of ensuring the cast is well rehearsed, but not jaded. We’ve got some intensive work this week, before our shows at the Marlborough Theatre this Thursday  8th and Friday 9th. Please come along if you can. A nice preview of our Brighton Blonde Productions show can be found here in BN1 Magazine.

The older I get, it becomes clear that time is the most precious resource. In my experience, no kind of art happens in a vacuum. Everyone else in the cast is juggling work and other commitments. As for me, in the last two weeks I’ve been visiting my mother’s husband who has been in intensive care in  a London hospital following a triple bypass. This kind of stark contrast, moving from intensive care ward to rehearsal room, increases my  determination to take every opportunity I can. I hope not an out of control egotism, just a desire to say everything I have to say that’s worth saying, while there’s still time.

That four such talented and hilarious actors are happy to give up their time, effort and energy to make these two dark comedies live and breathe is something I’m extremely grateful for.

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A Glass of Nothing & We Three Kings

The, ah-hem, sophisticated Brighton Blonde marketing machine is grinding into action. Here is the flyer for my plays at The Marlborough Theatre (tweaked for the interweb). Tickets are available at The Marley’s website here.

I am very proud of A Glass of Nothing. I am not someone who lovingly strokes my old work. But plays are a bit different. Each time you perform it, it is reborn. Beth, Dylan and Kitty continually unearth new approaches. I’m discovering that a successful script, is one that’s a firm launchpad. I’m also discovering the importance of a good structure. The play seems to have taken on a life of its own, driven by Beth’s direction and the lovely ensemble acting. I’m continually surprised at how well it works. We Three Kings is shaping up nicely too. It is about half an hour, and I think of it as a Christmas Entertainment, but a very Brighton one. A little bit nervous about this, just because it is so new.

PS: If you are tweety sort of person you can follow Brighton Blonde Productions at @BrightonBlondes

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A poet between worlds

Touchpapers by Tess Jolly, published by Eyewear Aviator 2016 Series

cover_jolly_print_1024x1024There is a magic and darkly fairytale quality in Tess Jolly’s work which I greatly admire. The poetry is the product of a powerful imagination.

In several poems a brother is depicted as a magical other, and their sibling relationship seems closest when dressing up, or playing imaginative games.

my legs swinging, his anchored to the floor –
one of us would shriek the code name

and we’d both hunch knees to chests,
pretend to be scared as the ground gave way
to glittering blue and silver carapaces,
giant razor crabs screeching and rattling scales
in rock-pools of pavement or lino.  

(Crab Water) 

In The Gingerbread House, where ‘I follow crumbs through the wood to find him’ the recurring brother and sister theme becomes filtered through a nightmarish lens:

He wants to show me around. We feel our way
along the sticky walls like children learning the dark.
Licking sugar from his lips he tries to hoist me
onto his shoulders as if he hasn’t realised I’ve grown.
I admire the toffee paving-slabs, butter-cream roofs.
He opens wide. Mice are nibbling his tongue.

(The Gingerbread House)

Having establishing that their realest connection was through a kind of make-believe, Tess Jolly’s poems function as acts of magical reanimation. As long as the imagination is alive, the relationship still exists. This is something I personally find very moving.

The poem Prayer is starker and uncloaked. Rigorous critics tend to resist biographical interpretations, but I find it hard not to draw the conclusion that the brother figure is also the same person featured in the two extraordinarily powerful end-of-life poems, Prayer and We’ll talk about this when it’s over.

If I prayed at all it wasn’t when I thought you were dying,
when children and dogs oozed from pavements
to gawp at you: a falang with shrivelled limbs and jaw
hanging, eyes dragged deep in their sockets.

(Prayer)

Touchpapers moves from such harrowing desperation to moments of beauty. At the end of Prayer the poem’s narrator is momentarily absorbed by looking out at the stars and moonlight on the sea. Tess Jolly’s imaginative leaps can make me laugh out loud too. Take the start of Frog:

Frog and I sit opposite each other comparing belches.
Obviously Frog’s are louder.

(Frog)

I’m not sure why this works so well. Maybe it’s the deadpan matter of factness. We are instantly there, with no necessity to suspend disbelief at this manifestation of the magical other.

… I have to be careful because Frog’s secretions
can be toxic, and there’s the danger his skin will dry
if we spend too long between worlds like this
mostly conversing but sometimes just squatting in silence.

(Frog)

Between worlds. That pinpoints it for me. Tess Jolly’s Touchpapers brings an otherworldly beauty, which stimulates the reader’s sense of wonder. Tess Jolly’s book is a tour de force of the imagination, and of course this quick look has only scratched its surface. But I highly recommend you read it for yourself.

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