Stick or bust?

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Skelton Yawngrave, by Margaret Hamlin

When is it sensible to give up? Persistence we are told is a characteristic of success. Against this idea, I always think about sunk costs. An agency pal once explained to me there’s no sense pouring money into a project because you’ve already poured lots of money into it. Likewise, there comes a moment to cut your losses on an artistic project, and not pour any more time into it.

I have been writing a novel aimed at a 10-12 year old readership for almost ten years. Having set it aside for four years, I recently had a moment of clarity about how I could fix the problems that had previously stumped me. While I have felt that this story contains my best writing, it also didn’t all hang together. But at the beginning of the year, I bought myself some time and have decided to try again. Because I believe in the project, there can only be one answer – once more unto the breach it is then.

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Grace Brown, by Margaret Hamlin

This time, at least, I’ve a new weapon: the writing software Scrivener. My friend Catherine Pope told me about its ages ago, and I finally got around to buying it. It has been a revelation.  And thanks to Scrivener, moving blocks of text, reordering chapters, keeping tabs on the story flow, characters and so on, in a 60k text is all far, far easier. Something that would have taken me hours to sort out, can now be done in seconds. And the new (eighth) draft of the novel (now called The second kind of darkness) is becoming streamlined into something that seems to me to be much improved.

When I first started working on this, almost ten years ago now, I asked my mother Margaret Hamlin to quickly visualise some of the characters I’d created. One of them, Skelton Yawngrave, is above, and the girl is Grace Brown, the story’s heroine, is the smaller image. It’s nice to be back in their company.

* * *

Since attending the T.S.Eliot awards I sent off for several shortlisted books. The first one I received was Rachael Boast’s Void Studies and I have enjoyed dipping into her delicate, dreamlike work. Often the poem’s meanings are tantalisingly out of reach, but like dreams, convey a strange significance.  Coincidentally, while reading landscape-1448893172-trumpsleep Void Studies I’ve been going through one of those phases where I remember my dreams on waking. I’ve noticed again how dreams touch on things I’ve tried to sweep under the carpet. Reading Void Studies during the unfolding catastrophe of Donald Trump’s presidency, makes me think about Donald Trump’s dreamlife. Is all that gold compensating for slate grey dreams? What monsters must live there.

What is the relevance of a book like Void Studies in Trump world? None. But that is the exactly the point. A subtle and delicate work like Void Studies is an example of a culture that must be protected from the jackboot of ignorance that figures like Trump represent.

* * *

And while I’m on the subconscious, having decided to relentlessly focus on prose I found myself writing a series of 13 short poems this week. On Thursday morning I wrote eight eight-line poems in an hour. I have never written eight poems in a week before, let alone eight in an hour. It seems there’s nothing like deciding that under no circumstances will you think about something to make the opposite happen.

* * *

All being well, my play A Glass of Nothing will be having a five-night run in the Surgeons Hall during the Edinburgh Festival, in August. More about that later in the year.

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T. S. Eliot Award readings

Just a quick note about the T.S. Eliot readings.  Luckily I met up with Robin Houghton, Charlotte Gann and Jess Mookerjee. The first phase of these readings is always the same, gathering in the long bar before and having to talk to people. It is good to have some pals with you, as this can be awkward. There is a tendency for poets, all pressed together on the ‘works outing’ (as host Ian McMillan said poet Jo Bell had called it) and there only being a limited amount of time, to be looking over each other’s shoulders for someone more influential to talk to.

Ian McMillan is a perfect host for this event, blending a down-to-earth (code for Barnsley) tone with some poetic flights of his own. This is the third successive awards I have been to, and I always enjoy the readings. I treat it like one of those old fashioned sampler albums, where you’d hear a track or two by lots of different bands. Vahni Capildeo mentioned Aimee Cesare, so had my attention, and I found her writing was ambitious and free.  J.O. Morgan performed his poems like dramatic monologues, and again was something I’d like to investigate further. Denise Riley‘s reading was full of excellent, dense poems that I look forward to seeing on the page, but I found her performance style mannered.  Rachael Boast has natural charisma, and her mysterious and musical poems were intriguing to me, although she professed to not knowing what they were about, a statement that I always take with a pinch of salt. Alice Oswald spoke her poems from memory very well with a clenched right hand. A reading that made me want to buy her book Falling Awake. I thought she was a nailed on favourite.

The eventual winner, however, announced the following day was Cumbrian poet Jacob Polley, whose reading I warmed to, despite a sinking feeling when I heard the central character in his poetry book was called Jackself, which made me think of John Self in Martin Amis’s Money (1984) and other self-insertions. Still he’d won me over by the end of it, and I think he is as worthy a winner as anyone. Who wins the thing is not something that bothers me much. Only time will tell who the winners are, if any.

So I have half a dozen shortlisted books on order, and I am looking forward to dwelling with them properly. If you bought all ten of the shortlisted books each year, you’d have a pretty interesting poetry library. A nightmare journey home followed, thanks to train cancellations and so on, but it was well worth it.

My view of the readings. Here is Ruth Padel, who introduced the event with a reading of Journey of the Magi, by T.S.Elliot. I didn’t take snaps of the others, as I didn’t want to distract myself and the others around me, for what weren’t going to be particularly good shots.

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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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