Wednesday, 22 October 2008

I swore first. Wednesday 15 October 2008

Presumably we all have monster egos or we wouldn't be doing this course. The natural plate boundaries of the group are emerging; cool kids/losers, crack poets/dilettante meddlers, usual stuff. This week we were to bring a first draft of the free verse we started last week; how it works is that each person distributes and reads their piece and the others provide feedback and suggestions. That bit of the session happens in the second half after our break, seven to eight minutes being allowed for each. As this was clearly not going to be adequate there was a barely suppressed anxiety as we careered between not wanting to be pushy and being frantic to read our own stuff,
Yes, yes that's fine
Now listen to mine
half believing that the feedback will comprise 'that's faultless! Nothing could be changed'. Or maybe that's just me. I was desperate not to be deperate so was one of the two not to get to read. Transpired that's fine because we get to go first next week; except, our first exercise before the break was to make notes for our next poem. One good piece was about finding a piece of chalk and (with accomplice) writing fuck off on the playground. My dead baby poem features fuck so now I'm thinking that the others will think I've copied, when really I broke the fuck barrier. In my sixth decade and worried that people might not realise that I swore first. Pathetic.

The theme of my next free verse is a magical person. When I was small in the 1950s Jimmy Woods lived in a little cottage with his mother. He looked like a character from an Alison Uttley book, like a Hedgehog in old fashioned clothes. He spoke with a broad rural accent, Faather for Father watter for water, and couldn’t read or write. He was very small and brown and wizened and I imagined he was ancient, although he was probably not much older than my Dad who will have been in his mid 30s at the end of the1950s. Jimmy might have been 40 but could have been 100. Legend had it (or rather my mother said) that he contracted meningitis as a child, before the introduction of antibiotics, and when he recovered his mother was so protective that he never went to school. He cycled everywhere, did gardening jobs and dug the graves at the village church. Whilst he was weird and unusual he was a sort of organic part of his rural setting. I wanted my poem to reflect the view I had about him and the times we were living through. 1950s, the Lancashire countryside, a farming community with three or four main land-owning families and everyone else beholden and subservient, Jimmy’s old fashioned clothes, speech and gossip, digging graves, his house without electricity and (I think) running water. He used to cycle for miles and you could pass him late on at night, his handlebars piled high with boxes; stuff he’d collected form rubbish left out at the back of the market. I’m keen to reflect the weirdness (sort of Alison Uttley crossed with Laurie Lee) but I don’t want to sound sentimental or nostalgic. However, he did have a place in the society he was part of and I wonder how that might be different now. Maybe he'd have been given antibiotics, back at school in a month and be at Bolton now doing media-studies.

The poem has gone through dozens of incarnations; I can’t stop myself trying to rhyme – although at least now I know there are half rhymes. I was on a hiding to nowhere with meningitis, Uttley, hedgehog and antibiotics though. I bought a book in Blackwell’s at Manchester yesterday, How to write a poem, so things should look up. My first official draft looks as if I found all the thesaurus terms for rural, chucked them up and left them where they landed, I’ve also co-opted Pan, which isn’t entirely disingenuous because Jimmy Woods and Pan do both personify rural weirdness and improbability in my mind.

My friend is in the road crew for the Wishbone Ash tour. Ellie came with me to see them at Blackpool on Sunday evening. The Hamsters were also on the bill, after their first tune Ellie, who is rather musical, said ‘well at least they’re good’. Yet again my cue to say, ‘how on earth do you know that?’ She said, ‘well imagine they’d given you and me a guitar and drum kit and put us up there on the stage’. I’ve bagsied the drums. The Hamsters are good if you get the chance and you can buy a Hamster Head t-shirt. Wishbone Ash were very fine at important guitar playing too. As indeed were many of the nicely behaved Wish Heads, or Ash Heads; some in leather jackets and AC/DC tops but mostly in car coats and leisure wear. Before I went I asked my friend if there were any nice fitted Wishy t-shirts, he said no, no ladies t-shirts, in fact not many ladies really. There were a few actually; they just didn’t make a big thing of it.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Image, metaphor, simile. Wednesday 8 October 2008

If there is a better indulgence than a room with a smallish group of people; being invited to speak about yourself and having the opportunity to pilfer the ideas of others, I don’t know what it is. All that, and no hangover.

I imagine, with ample justification, that I’m a tad unsophisticated about poetry. I like the hits, Philip Larkin, They fuck you up, your mum and dad, John Betjeman’s Christmas and Joan Hunter Dunn, Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress and Goodbat Nightman by Roger McGough.

I used to be able to make up glib rhymes at school,
Wash your pans with Brillo pads
Get the Guinness down you lads
Take Phensic if you’ve got it bad
All the rage for teenage fads

I struggled with the order of that verse of the poem because I didn’t want it to seem as if I wanted there to be an association between the different lines; drinking Guinness leading on to having to taking painkillers for example. It was written in the mid sixties; I haven’t heard about Phensic analgesics for a long time and I think the phrases All the rage and Teenage fads were prettymuch obsolete even when I was writing them down.

I made up some song lyrics in my sleep once; the word song is probably inappropriate but ditty reminds me of titty so I can’t use it. When I was a student nurse my decrepit bicycle overnighted in a shed in the yard of the terraced house I shared. To jazz it up I’d bought a red head lamp for it. When the shed was broken into the robber stole the red lamp but left my bike behind. I was pretty stung about the rejection and dreamt about the incident a lot. One time in a dream I composed the lines,
My friend is a pastry designer
He’s just had a brand new idea
A sausage roll shaped like a bike lamp
But mark you they’re going to be dear
(I also dreamed the alternative final line - But you’ll never buy them ‘round here)
This was to be sung to the tune of My Bonnie lies over the Ocean.
It was the first and only time I ever woke myself up laughing at my own imagined wit.

Similes worry me because they’re often so clichéd, ‘black as pitch’; or contrived and self conscious, ‘he entered the room like an apology’. This last one mine from the exercise we did on Wednesday inserting similes at the end of phrases. I found if very difficult, the clichés jump into my head first and then I labour to be creative and come out with ‘Disgusting as hair pulled slimy from a plug hole’. The only thing I could bring myself to write down for, ‘her breasts like…’ was ‘her breasts like breasts’. I’ve along way to go.

Looked at a chapter by Theodore Deppe on the Journey a poem makes and jotted down the sequence of a memorable event with a view to paring it down to free verse. I wrote about the adrenaline rush of meeting someone you feel obsessive about. We’re preparing a first draft to take next Wednesday but I’ve changed my experience to the death of a baby. I’m aware that’s probably being sentimental and manipulative and exploitative and clichéd (again) and other bad things beside.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

First night. Wednesday 1 October 2008

The first session of the new course was on Wednesday evening 1 October 2008. There were ten of us. I don’t think I really had any particular expectations of what the others would be like, other than I vaguely imagined they might remind me of me. They didn’t, and like Alan Bennett’s mother I immediately started to construct unfounded biographies and backgrounds for them.

We spoke about our childhoods with reference to a particular place, item or feeling, say a den, a bedroom, toy, pair of shoes, pet, school friend or fear. I thought about Elizabeth Stevenson. I could see her but I couldn’t retrieve her surname until I was driving home. Recollections were so vivid I could feel some of them as if there were my own; the sensation of wearing see-through jelly heels with a marble stuck in the waffle sole, my shoulders tightening with the naughty camaraderie of hiding a playtime Lego construct in the books so it wouldn’t be wrecked. Talking to others broke my own memories open, someone spoke about their terrifying bedroom curtains and I was reminded of a paisley pattern sofa fabric that I used to travel along the interweaving pattern of in my mind. We all had frighteny ceiling plaster monsters and most of the people I spoke to had doting detailed den memories; garnering scraps of rough textured corrugated iron to make a roof between two huts; the scent of the grass roof that camouflaged the den. I used to furnish mine with great big shiny new hinges from my dad’s shed; I’d pretend were books and I remember sitting ‘reading’ and at the same time crumbling cut-off scraps asbestos (yes really), it has a lovely silky, talcy texture when you rub it between your fingers. I wonder if there are denpeople and non-dentypes, I still like hideaways a lot but know children who’ll say things like, ‘smells funny’ or ‘what if there are spiders in there?’ or ‘but I can’t stand up’. Surely dens weren’t meant to be palatial anywhere but in your head? I also wonder if dentypes grow up into shedpeople. On the drive between Lancaster and Liverpool as a child I was enchanted by the allotments we passed at the side of the Ribble in Penwortham. A bit because they always seemed to have bonfires on the go, but mostly because of the raggedy range of sheds on show; a recycled boat wheelhouse, cabins with curtains, huts with extensions; people sitting outside their sheds enjoying a companionable brew; proper shedpeople with no fear of spiders or self-important expectations of being able to stand upright all the time.

What stayed with me from the first session of the new course was, that a lot of us remember stuff very intensely from when they were about six, that we were all subject to horrible fears that, in theory, could have been easily ameliorated by the presence of our parents, (in evolutionary terms I’m sure babies or children are not meant to be left to sleep on their own) and that a lot of us think that the world is a more perilous place now than it was when they were young. That last worries me enormously, partly because I just don’t want it to be the case. For one thing, as a nominal grown-up, I’m responsible for the world as it stands today. For another thing I just don’t think it can be true; there have always been seemingly irrationally cruel people who abused the power they had over others. Records from children who spent time in homes or residential schools during1950s and 1960 often contain harrowing accounts of terrible vulnerability, casual bullying, and terrible, terrible cruelty. When I was about eleven and, it transpires very naïve, my parent’s decent chamber of trade friend invited me to look around his coffee bar during its winter refurbish. It suits me now to think that my mother dismissed my description of his attempts to wrestle with me, ‘don’t be silly, he wouldn’t do that’ or ‘don’t be daft, he didn’t mean anything’. But I suspect now that I didn’t tell her; I wasn’t so young or naïve that I didn’t realise that that brief scuffle and what it didn’t actually lead to was deeply shameful. Sadly I imagined the shame as mine and not his.

The last thing that stayed with me from Wednesday is the significance of the combination of person and tense on the emotional impact of a piece of life writing. I went to an outdoor concert at Houghton Towers once. After one tune the conductor turned to the audience and apologised that one part had been slightly off-key. My friend Steve swivelling in his garden chair, eyebrow raised, and said to me, ‘how on earth does he know that?’ which was exactly what I was thinking. I feel a bit the same about combinations of person and tense, I’ve a good bit of work to do on grammar I can tell.