A dark comedy for the selfie generation

My play A Glass of Nothing starts with Beth Symons, below, searching for likes online. Other than that, what else can a lonely twenty-something woman with no money, poor housing, and dismal prospects do? She has to stay at home and gulp a glass of nothing, that’s what.

A Glass of Nothing is built around a classic three wish structure. Beth wishes for beauty, the perfect partner, and a great career — having decided that ‘nothing is more real than advertising’.

Here’s a wee trailer… click here to book a seat at the show.

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Minotaur

I don’t dwell much on past projects.  I’m always focused on the next thing.  On Friday I had a few beers with Glen Capra, and this reminded me of Glen and I recording my poem Minotaur, which had been set to music by Matthew Pollard, in one take back in 2011. I made this video afterwards, using a flip camera to get a labyrinth effect walking around in Brighton.  The poem’s hero doesn’t realise he appears monstrous to others.

 

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Versatile, unflinching and soulful. Richard Fleming’s tour de force

Richard Fleming

Richard Fleming launches Stone Witness

Stone Witness by Richard Fleming, published by Blue Ormer Publishing

Richard Fleming’s new collection is a tour de force, harvesting poems which include some of his strongest work to date. The best of Richard Fleming’s work is possessed by soul; that unmistakable sense that the poem you are reading is inhabited by something other than mere words.

Stone Witness collects 40 poems , and it feels like a major collection. The two longest poems are the title poem, and The Murchen Quartet, quite magical in its hare imagery.

Midnight; a sickle moon, black trees in silhouette,
tall, jagged tops,
an electrocardiogram
scribbled on the night sky.

(The Murchen Quartet)

Into this charged landscape, a stranger arrives.

Kneeling, he opens a satchel,
secured by leather-made leash
and gently releases,
as though giving birth,
two leverets, supple and sinewy-soft

(The Murchen Quartet)

One of the many skills Richard Fleming has at his disposal is to conjure the natural world. But this moment of a man mysteriously giving birth in a meadow is starkly contrasted to other poems in this collection that brood unflinchingly on ageing and death. There is a  woman in Quarry drowned in time and drawn down by death’s dark current.

                            Drowned daughter
she descends through grey seams
hewn by generations
of quarrymen long dead

(Quarry)

while in Next Please, the horror of ageing is coldly explored.

staring, fearful, at the ceiling
or some mirage, in the corner,
no one else sees. The disorder
of their lives is like a puzzle:
pieces fail to fit together,
sky or trees or roof is missing.

(Next Please)

Richard Fleming was born in Northern Ireland, and in poems such as Titanic (built in Belfast) and His Mother Dances, and Picnic,  he strives to recall childhood details to give us glimpses of his early life.

The first image
is always a tartan rug,
then, swiftly, other items follow:
Dad’s parked Austin, monochrome,
Mum’s picnic basket, acres of beach,
Atlantic breakers rolling in
and, there, behind my milk-white shape,
huge sand-dunes rising.

(Picnic)

Richard Fleming’s experience of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, worked a strange magic on the poet. Instead of publishing poems about that conflict, his reaction was to celebrate life, in sometimes joyous poems that extol his adopted island home of Guernsey. Much of his writing on the island was collected in A Guernsey Double (2010) (aided by the Guernsey Arts Commission) as a two-person project with the current writer to pool our poetry about Guernsey and create a poetic landmark in the writing of the island.

To my mind this project culminated in October 2016, when Richard was commissioned to write a poem about the island, which stands as the eponymous centrepiece of this collection, Stone Witness. The broadcast of this poem was a magical moment, which celebrated the mysterious La Gran’mère du Chimquière, the 5-3,000 year old menhir standing outside St Martin’s Parish Church in Guernsey. This poem is destined to become a paean to the island itself.

Stone,
old, old stone, I groan with age.
Gran’mère, Earth Mother,
I stand sentry beyond the churchyard gate,
and watch, with sightless eyes,
the snail of human traffic creep along.

I am old and granite-cold: your islands anchor stone.

Your father’s fathers came to me
to pray, to lay or lift some minor curse:
an endless chain of island men,
one generation to another,
linked.

(Stone Witness)

There are moments of humour in this collection, such as his tribute to Philip Larkin, or in the miniature Eden: The Short Version, which can be fully quoted.

God gave Man
Paradise.
It all went
pear-shaped.

(Eden: The Short Version

This is a rich collection, and I cannot do justice to its versatility and scope here. There are apocalyptic visions, such as the extraordinary Last Moments, sketches of lost friends and family, and more political work such as Flotsam where we see a refugee washed ashore.

She lies face down
barely breathing,
a human starfish,
one black asterisk
referencing nothing.

Great credit is due to Steve Foote, the publisher of Blue Ormer Publishing, who has brought the island the book by Edward Chaney Genius Friend, about G.B. Edwards, author of The Book of Ebenzer Le Page. which I blogged about here.

As the pre-eminent poet on Guernsey, Richard Fleming’s wonderful collection is an important addition to the Blue Ormer list, and to the story of Guernsey poetry.

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‘A Glass of Nothing’ theSpace@Surgeons’ Hall, Edinburgh 4-5 & 7-10 August

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Tickets available here

I’ve always liked collaborations. Brighton Blonde Productions, the theatre production company I put together with my stepdaughter Beth Symons has been a particularly excellent one. Our Edinburgh trip will be our third run as Brighton Blonde Productions.

It is good to write with an actor in mind, instead of starting with a blank sheet. For A Glass of Nothing, Beth and I drank beers and discussed the pressing concerns of a woman  woman in her twenties (beyond the next round of course). When writing it, all I had to do was consult my inner Beth and ask myself if she would say those lines. Beth’s influence means that the play deals with social media, and the pressure to conform to expectations of beauty and so on. It has turned out to be a dark comedy for the selfie generation.

It’s nice for us as a family. The ever supportive Lorraine (my wife, Beth’s mother) is listed as our official stage hand for the show. I’ve been to the Edinburgh festival as a punter was great fun. Taking a play to Edinburgh will, fingers crossed, be at least as much fun — mixed with dread and horror, obviously.

I am also mightily relieved that the fabulous and multitalented Kitty Underhill will join us in Edinburgh too. Kitty is a top comedy actress, and her enthusiasm, poise and hilarious ad libs have contributed enormously to the show. For the Edinburgh run we’ve recruited actor and model Matt Colborne to play the male roles. Beth and I have started intensively rehearsing with him, and I’m already excited about the new character dimensions Matt can bring to the show.

Turns out everyone in the show is an actor/model. I also have a tiny cameo in the show — but it will come as no surprise that I am not an actor/model at all. Though the cast are all busy on other work, somehow, we’re pulling it altogether. So if you find yourself in Edinburgh at the beginning of August. Come along!

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Is this the year of The Shakespeare Heptet?

I love the The Shakespeare Heptet. I have previously called them the greatest unknown band in the UK. So I was pleased to catch them in one of their  Brighton Fringe performances at St Mary The Virgin in Kemptown on Saturday 13th May.

The Heptet is designed to have a revolving cast. But on Saturday 13th May, they were playing as a four piece, with Richard Gibson on guitars Silvana Montya, Rebecca Macmillan on vocals, and Aaron Power on percussion and vocals. Their stagecraft is taking great strides. This was a slick performance.

As ever, the music is exquisite. Obviously their lyricist is probably the world’s greatest poet. Their performance, which features the sonnets projected on the brick wall, was abetted by having their context and subject matter pithily introduced by members of the band.

Richard Gibson (in what I first thought of as a bit of a madcap scheme but now is clearly a magnum opus) has now set something like 90 of the sonnets. They are simultaneously timeless and often naggingly catchy. An amazing trick to pull off. What’s weirder is that when I picked up the sonnets again last night, I could hear The Heptets’ voices singing in my head. The sonnets are completely alive and well in the 21st Century.

Is this the year that the world finally catches up with The Shakespeare Heptet? I hope so. Theirs’ is an amazing project.

Photos below: Richard Gibson, shortly before the gig, Richard and his shadow, the Shade of Shakespeare, the band in the church, and The Heptet, left to right, Richard, Rebecca, Silvana and Aaron.

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Is John Keats a natural poet?

‘If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.’ John Keats, Hampstead Feb 27th 1818, Letter to John Taylor.

Keats wrote this ‘axiom’ in a letter to his friend John Taylor when he was 22. Are we to read this as a notion of genius — that great artists simply and effortlessly derive their work from the muses, while the rest of us lumpen, non-geniuses labour? Of course by the age of 22 Keats had already published and written sublime and lasting work. But read through his poetry and you can see the craft evolve at an extraordinary rate — accelerated by his deep study of Shakespeare.

Most texts, especially poetry, are worked at long and hard. Many writers, but I would suggest especially poets because of the nature of the form, will be familiar with the sensation of a poem arriving fully realised. The first poem I had printed (in Other Poetry, back in the early eighties) was written this way. I remember sitting down to write, after a visit to Kenilworth Castle,  and an effortless eight-line poem about the Castle simply popping out. It was a weird feeling.  Since then a few of my poems have emerged this way and when it happens, you must avoid noticing that it is happening, just go with the flow.

Keats’s Ode To Autumn, was published in 1820. While the first page of the MS here has crossings-out (I selected this image from Google because it seemed quite worked on) even this MS demonstrates that the poem arrived almost fully formed, and it was composed in one day — 19th September 1819. For one of the most famous poems in the English language, that’s not bad going. Here’s the first page of the MS version.

toautumn1

It is a moot point if anyone else can tell that a something written in one fell swoop or not, and if this matters?

T.E. Eliot’s The Waste Land, took years to write, and there is MS with not only Eliot’s workings but Ezra Pound, the il miglior fabbro (the better maker) of the poem’s dedication. Between them, they shrunk the poem by almost half with their edits and revisions. Here is the start of the poem as we know it, but notice the pagination, the first page of the poem in MS had been completely cut, with a light pencil line, by Eliot himself.

Manuscript-of-T-S-cup_410_g_63_p6

Naturally the methods of Keats and Eliot are entirely different. Modernism, as expressed in The Waste Land, is in part a literary collage, a piecing together to make something new. This is time consuming. The Romantic idea of genius, and a spirit suddenly possessing one is persistent.  It is a single-minded outpouring, rather than an assemblage. You may have read lots, but your poem must pour out of you in an inspired torrent.

Keats was an extraordinary person. If we were all to wait for poetry to emerge like leaves from a tree, poems would be few and far between. But perhaps there is a case to be argued that a Romantic poem being tinkered with endlessly somehow kills it. Wordsworth’s endless revisions of his own work may be an example of this.

Today, traces of Romantic thinking still exist in the caricatured expectations culture has for the way artists are supposed to behave. The image of the otherworldly poet inspired by a muse is a hard one to shake off.

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Is your writing true to yourself?

1432719578_Karl Ove Knausgård

Karl Ove Knausgaard

Reading A Man in Love, volume two of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, I’m struck by how his fidelity to describing life’s minutiae lends credibility to his descriptions of more important things. If he can be so reliable in his description of doing the washing up, then we instinctively trust his truth telling about more important events. Knausgaard’s candour is magnificent. He seems to remember everything, and retells it unflinchingly, however bad it makes him seem, or how humiliating it is for the people close to him.

He does have a consistent tone. The tone is truthful. Obviously ‘truth’ is word guaranteed to start arguments, but having such an identifiable tone is an advantage, but it seems to me to presuppose a stable identity from which that voice emerges.

Rightly or wrongly, I tend to think of people as a cluster of sub-personalities. So to me having a tone which is sustained for as long as Knausgaard sustains it, seems remarkable. It is a fictional device however, and a tension exists between the consistency of this device and the idea that Knausgaard is relentlessly truth telling.  I find the truthfulness in Knausgaard challenging in all the right ways.  He manages to convey a  searing emotional reality, that is strangely able to remain grounded in the concrete world.

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Sylvia Plath

Confessional writers appear to grant you permission to access to private thoughts. Sylvia Plath electrified this approach. Take Daddy written on October 1962.

Although the ‘I’ is addressing a ‘you’, I don’t really have any sense of  a dialogue here, rather of eavesdropping on one of those repetitive interior monologues.

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two –
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy you can lie back now.

There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

(Daddy)

This sounds like a confession, but who is she confessing to? Us as readers I suppose.

Elsewhere in the poem she employs holocaust imagery to describe her Daddy, such as: ‘A man in black with a Meinkampf look’. Her father was a German-born academic who wrote a book about bumblebees, and arrived in the US at the age of 5 in 1900. Plath is clearly describing an emotional reality rather than a empirical one. But in the arena of her supercharged interior monologue, emotional and symbolic truths exist with mesmerising force.

As someone who likes plays, a fictionalised I, such as in a Shakespearian dramatic monologue, seems entirely normal. In English poetry Robert Browning was well known for his poems which were essentially dramatic monologues. While Y.B. Yeats had what he called ‘masks’ through which his various personae spoke. There is nothing new about toying with identity. The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa for example, published poems under several identities. When I visited his house in Lisbon, there were the horoscopes he’d drawn up for these different identities on the exterior walls of the house. Wikipedia lists 81 different heteronyms.

What Knausgaard makes me think about how we manage self-disclosure and present our truth in writing. When you can make your writing seem like unalloyed truth, the fripperies of fiction can seem artificial. I’m hoping that by gulping down another dose of  Knausgaard, my awareness of inauthenticity in my own work will be heightened.

For me the idea of who is this person who is writing your work, is quite an intriguing one.  I think I tend to give vent to different kinds of truth in my plays than I do in my poems. I like the idea of different media conveying different sub-personalities. But there must be some centre to it all somewhere, some bedrock of personality. Perhaps this is why I am enjoying Knausgaard so much. Perhaps we can infer from his work that there is a bedrock, and we find this reassuring.

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