Sunday, 30 November 2008

Wonder if the Poet noticed? Wednesday 26 November 2008

Wonder if the Poet noticed a change on the group? I think I’m bonding, cynicism sloping away. Some of my old friends came for tea and I was telling them about the classes. They said things like, ‘are you going to be writing the next best-seller thriller?’ (hardly) and ‘what’s the difference between creative writing and writing’ (oh, I don’t know - creative, I suppose). And then someone asked if there were any constraints on what we wrote; I think they meant are we allowed to write filth. I tried to explain that it’d never come up (oh, ha ha ha ha) and there was a lot of merriment about how they’d liven us all up if they joined our group. I was absurdly defensive and blustered about how we didn’t need ‘livening up’ with their stories of infidelities or rum, bum and concertina or whatever, what we are writing is plenty interesting without their pathetic sleaze. And anyway, we’ve got sleaze if we want. I was preposterous. But I realised that I really do like what we’re writing.

I’ve finished Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski. She describes something she terms her daughter Chloe’s cheesecake moment. It was a mildly upsetting occurrence when Chloe was tiny and now she doesn't remember the moment or the constant retelling of the moment but she remembers the remembering. Well. Like Australian greenstone leilira blades; a lot of effort and ritual goes into the creation and distribution of the tools, but when they are delivered to their destinations they aren’t used or cherished or curated. Robert Paton (1994) in World Archaeology 26:2 reckons that the blades aren’t utilitarian items but are the vehicle of information transmission. At each ritualised stage of their production and circulation the Aboriginals involved get stories straight. Like granddads and uncles do at weddings and funerals, “remember Yambo Dwyer? And that bloody budgie? It was 1962, weren’t his mam mad!” “ It weren’t 1962, our Eckie was still alive and we buried her in June ’61, just after Arnie finished at Jacobs - and it were a parakeet”. “1961 then, but it was certainly a budgie, Type 1 yellowface, I know that much” and so on until there’s a consensus of sorts. The accord is salted away as the remembering until the next get-together; even making a remembering for accomplices who weren’t around in 1961.

I so admire Jenny Diski, she had the line, “I wished I hadn’t dicked around during physics and deprived myself of answers to most of the questions”, and didn’t use it until page 221. Would that I could exercise such restraint.; I’d have used dicked around every other page; I will now.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Much, much harder than I thought. Wednesday 19 November 2008

Much, much harder than I thought to redraft the Funeral into third person. Tried to do it without naming the me character; replacing every ‘I’ and ‘me’ with 'she' and 'her'. Might not have been so bad but the work is monster heavy with lady-characters so I ended up tied in knots trying to make it explicit who is being referred to. Bit of a pickle. My friend who's hot on syntax was helpful in her critique of the original first-person piece. She said the narration was confusing sometimes because of all the characters; she’d had to go back and start reading again. I think that effect will be amplified in the redrafted third-person version. She added that this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing because it indicated there are plenty of interesting characters to write and she suggested I make the paragraphs smaller. I quite often need to go back to sort out characters when I’m reading, especially if two names start with J or something. Sometimes I have to draw the matrix around the characters; although mostly I don’t bother because I’m indolent and I think it’ll all come clear in the end. But I do think I’ll have to make my writing more lucid; maybe by allowing more time to introduce each character and to stop trying to be economical with words.

I watched Pan’s Labyrinth on Friday; I’ve taken this long because the reviews and friends who’d seen it spoke about a particularly violent and unlikable scene. I resolved just not to look when it was happening; I did look, but only sideways. Pan again, only it was a faun really and del Toro has said that the faun in the film is not Pan (Wikipedia) but used in the title so that English speakers would not confuse the faun of the Spanish title, El laberinto del fauno, with fawn, as in deer. Do they think people who opt to watch subtitled films are daft?

The film reminded me of my eldritch list, weird stuff that makes me feel funny, paintings of the Tower of Babel; waterwheels; Poll na bPeist; mazes; all those structures amongst the trees on the hillside at Rivington; clockwork anythings; ziggurats; Celtic heads; migraine; hedgehogs; warts (look what's happened there, JK Rowling obviously made her list a while ago)

Last week the lecturer talked about second person. As I understand, second person pronouns and verbs are used to refer to the person addressed by the language in which they occur. And I couldn’t see me managing that. But then someone’s redraft started out in third person and ended in second person. As in, ‘you made it’, which was very effective, because of course we do speak to ourselves all the time. I was reminded of a funny poem entitled, ‘Didn’t see that coming’ that one of us wrote. When I look back at it it’s written in first person but might work well in second.

There wasn’t time to critique the work of my competent friend and I this week. I’m calm because I’ve been here before and it all comes out ok next time; although we’re back to poetry next week; all comes out ok the time after next, then. Anyway, I’ve realised now that critiquing is competitive too; the who’s-most-insightful-stakes, so if you’re astute you can show off without even being vulnerable.

Out for a birthday meal at the weekend; I noticed the man across from us had a relatively new hair transplant, if that’s what it’s called. I told El (after she’d eaten) because she’d have been livid to have missed it. Of course my friend, Auntie Pam wanted to know what I was saying too. I swore her to discretion and we both examined the Sicilian painting on the wall in the opposite direction whilst I told her. "That man has a hair transplant." It was fine, moments lapsed and then she said, “That reminds me I'm going to the hairdressers next week, roots and perm otherwise it’s as straight as straight.” All the time that poor man must hear conversations about hairstyles and hairdressers striking up around him, and yes I know it was my fault this time. I was reminded of taking my dad for a hospital appointment. I’ve been told by a friend who knows about child development that diplomacy and discretion are some of the last human attributes we acquire (you walk a three year old near a one-legged man at your peril) and amongst the first we lose. My dad would never knowingly hurt anyone but it was like sitting in a cramped waiting room with a three year old. “He doesn’t look a bit well does he?” and “deaf bugger” when someone failed to hear their name being called. A slightly swarthy man with a stethoscope tiggered, "they want us to face all the beds to Mecca you know". "Who said that?" he tapped his Daily Express. If anyone slightly worthy of comment enters or passes I’d try to distract him with something in the Express or on the wall. A very fat lady walked by; she was attractive and well groomed and I thought the risk had receded but her companion entered close at her plump heels. She was a rather messy chubbier version of her sister. In Alan Bennett mode I’d made it that the spruce lady was accompanying her ill messy sister for an appointment. I held my breath, my dad had already been warned, two beats, then in steady clear tones,
“Remember Lisa? Now she was a big woman”
Me hissing, “Dad!”
“What? I’m only saying”
Nobody looked, at us or the fat sisters, but it was perfectly clear to everyone in the tiny waiting room what had prompted the memory.

I’ve been thinking about ideas of beauty - hair transplants, makeup, tattooing, intentional cranial remodelling, breast implants and stuff and I’m finding my standards are a bit on the double side, what a shock.

Ellie had a birthday. We’ve magnetic lowercase letters and (curiously) magnetic shopping list words on our fridge. They’ve only ever been used to compile amusing and generally mucky comments and phrases. A boy at the party was standing looking at the fridge and asked El what ‘dnos’ was. She was stumped and they stood together heads at an angle looking at, and repeating the word for a while. Finally, and presumably in frustration, someone else came up behind them, reached between their two inclined heads, swivelled the word till it read soup, and then testily swivelled it back again.

Monday, 17 November 2008

That'll be different. Wednesday 12 November 2008

Submitted our first drafts with commentary and thought about theme. Called my bit funeral and I spoke to a friend about what I was preparing; I described the different components, Jimmy Woods digging graves, the death and funeral of my friends' mother, the tune September Song and wearing a remembrance poppy. He asked if I was calling it September Song, he plays gypsy guitar and he has four versions of it on his ipod; that in itself seems extraordinary because I think I imagined I was one of the last two people alive who knew the song. I've never considered calling it that but I didn't know why because it does encompass ideas of the past, my father and time running out. Thinking about themes make me realise that I'd stuck with funeral because it is literally (is it literally?) at the funeral where all the components converge. I'm feeling a bit giddy and excited about changing person and seeing what happens to hand in next week. I was pleased that the lecturer made us work with someone different this week because it’s useful to have a change of perspective. And it’s diverting to speak to someone else.

Someone called Jo Marchant was on Start the Week on Radio 4 on Monday. She spoke about the Antikythera, a calculating mechanism dating from 70 BC that was recovered from an Aegean shipwreck in 1901 by pearl divers. The device links the technical calendars used by astronomers to the everyday calendars that regulated Greek society. Its intermeshed toothed wheels represent calendar cycles; by turning the wheels users could distinguish the relationships between astronomical cycles to figure out the relative positions of the sun and moon and forecast eclipses. It’s a complicated but it’s unlikely to have been a one-off. It made me think about the althiometer in Philip Pullman's Dark Materials. When Jo had spoken others on the panel expressed astonishment that whoever had made the device hadn't made something Really Useful, 'they could have made a alarm clock'. Jo replied that within the context of the times the maker had made something Exceedingly Useful and that first century BC Greeks would have no use for a clock, alarm or otherwise. This made me think about two things, an anthropologist called Evans-Prichard who studied the Nuer, who are/were Sudanese pastoralists. He reported that they did not have any expression equivalent to time which meant that they couldn’t speak of time as though it was something actual, it didn’t pass, couldn’t be wasted, couldn’t be saved and couldn’t be made up. I’m compelled by the notion that we invented something as stressful as time and I wonder what we do or don’t do now that will appear incomprehensible to future generations. I suspect that building substantial great structures to the glory of a god that we’ve made up might be one thing, but of course it’s just as likely to be something that seems wise and reasonable to me at the moment. I very uneasy about the common assumption that putting children from the age of four or five away in schools from 9.00 till 3.00 every day is a kind or sensible thing to do.

I went to Crail this weekend to visit my mother in law. Crail is a very strange seaside town in Fife. On my last visit the man in the museum directed me to a petrified Carboniferous tree trunk on the beach. I was completely overwhelmed by the sight of it, it’s huge and unbelievable. A few weeks later my daughter Ali went to visit her Granny and then went in search of the fossil tree trunk. She couldn’t find it so asked a likely looking local. He said he thought it must be in the opposite direction because, ‘there are only rocks that way’.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Life writing returns Wednesday 5 November 2008

29 October was the last poetry session until Wednesday 26 November. We were packed off last week with instructions to write a poem with form. I’ve bought three books, How to write a poem by John Redmond; Poetry – the basics by Jeffrey Wainwright; The making of a poem: a Norton anthology of poetic forms, Mark Strand and Eavan Boland (eds.). And then I Googled pantoum and followed the structure set out on Wikipedia, just like I tell my students not to. So, the second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first and third lines of the next; for any number of stanzas, except for the final stanza, which differs in the repeating pattern. The first and third lines of the last stanza are the second and fourth of the penultimate; the first line of the poem is the last line of the final stanza, and the third line of the first stanza is the second of the final. That is,



I think; that’s what I’ve done anyway. My pantoum is frivolous and insubstantial and relates to fact that no one in our house ever wants to go food shopping, make a brew, feed the cats, get coal, empty the dishwasher or clean. To make it fair the system we operate is that if you blink first you have to do the chore.

We also employ the T-plot; that is, trying to trick someone else into making the sound ‘T’. For example one person might pretend to be doing the crossword and ask the others how to spell ‘eject’. If someone is tricked into saying the ‘T’ sound, the others in the room all yell, “yes please!” and the silly T-er has to go and make the drinks. Hilarious. The system isn’t foolproof however because three of us are dyslexic and, although daft and forgetful enough to be duped, we often genuinely reply that we don’t know how to spell the word.

I was impressed by how the form of the pantoum makes it make sense of sorts but I’m cross with my absurdly crass abab rhymes. I want a book or a website that’ll give me half-rhymes so that I can seem more sophisticated.

I’m writing the notes for this on an early train to Manchester. There are two mature students (far younger than me though) having a loud conversation, nay competition, about who knows the Biggest Most Important amount of stuff and whose relatives have the Most Critical medical condition. I put earphones in my ears but their voices are headset resistant. If I pause it’ll be because I’ve broken off briefly to punch the winner.

It was peculiar to shift back to back to life writing from poetry. It was show and tell night. We brought an important item to describe and talk about. I couldn’t decide between two; a piece of igneous rock that Ali brought back from Kilimanjaro and the Mousterian flake that Duncan found in the Loire Valley. My emotional response to the baby poem made me realise that I probably couldn’t talk about the lava, even obliquely, without getting upset. It was actually hard enough to talk about the fact that an other species of hominid had made the flake and that my son had seen it and realised that it’d be something I’d want to look at.

One of our group spoke about her grandmother’s engagement ring; of how it recalled her grandmother’s devotion and forbearance in the face of her grandfather’s confusion as he aged. It made me think about my own commitment to marriage; I have so little patience and I worry about people close to me becoming chronically sick because I’m too selfish to look after someone without harbouring terrible resentment, or making like I’m an honourable person; indeed a plaster saint.

We wrote about our significant item and then reworked what we had down using a different tense and person. I was right back to ‘how on earth do you know?’ Luckily the person I was discussing the impact of the changes with is really hot on syntax (if that’s the term). She brilliant at picking out patterns and half rhymes in poetry too; she’s exactly the right person for me to be sitting next to.

We submit a first draft of life writing next week. Thinking and writing about Jimmy Woods sparked what I’m doing. I dreamed about him last night, weirder and weirder. There has emerged a tie-in between him digging graves, the church where I attended my friends’ mother’s funeral, my Dad, the remembrance poppy and a tune called September Song. All sounds a bit soppy now. For the second draft we have to radically rework the piece by altering tense and or person; I’m truly a bit excited to see what happens when I do that.

I’m slightly worried about confidentiality. I’m using real names. I’ve tried to change them but when I do it creates too much detachment and the people start to behave in ways that I don’t recognise. I’ll have to call them by their real names at least until the first draft is completed.

We read a bit of an article entitled Experience by Joan W Scott. It was a spot impenetrable but I think I have already been thinking about what she’s writing about. Partly, how to convey the integrity of an event, both from my perspective, without trying to present myself as a plaster saint, and with an understanding the alternative perspectives of the other participants – who are obviously equally a part of the situation but are not viewing it with my eyes or my baggage; suppose a bit like the scrap of Kilimanjaro or the Neanderthal flake, or my Dad at the funeral. I was reminded of anthropology lectures and of the way that (sweeping generalisation here) the white, male, classically educated perspective of the early anthropologists influenced how unfamiliar societies were recorded and could also change those cultures by the way the worker interacted with society members. For example male ethnographers privileged what they consider to be Big and Important - tool making and hunting; the stories and perspective of male hunters, even though these activities might play a relatively small role in terms of nutrition or social cohesion. The emphasis of the western worker effectively mutes the role and view of the female. Even though the foraging and preparation she does for food probably supplies most of the calories eaten by a group and her childcare and networking activities fortify and maintain the social structure of a culture. Group members can obviously see what the anthropologist value and this in turn influences how the men and the women in the society perceive themselves and their roles.

I suppose what’s hard is knowing what your perspective or prejudice is; obviously I won’t think my bigotry is anything but the natural order.

First I was very pleased that Barack Obama won, and then I was shocked that so many people still voted for a 72 year old man and that lady who defies description, but who would become the president if the 72 year old man died died. And then I realised I didn’t even know who Barack Obama’s deputy was until I saw him on Have I Got News for You last night. Whilst Obama’s not old I presume he’s very, very vulnerable to assassination attempts. Anyway, I’ll get sophisticated about half-rhymes first and then I’ll work on politics.

Some of us were swotty and circulated our poems with form in time for the others to have A Nice Look At before 26 November. I’m particularly taken with one called My Nan is Mental. Takes me right back to the Mersey Sound and Roger McGough and Goodbat Nightman; I love it.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Not as hard as I thought I was. Wednesday 22 November 2008

Feelings about the group have shifted again. I’d read and read out my poem about the baby until it was just words but when it came to doing the same with an audience I was way too affected by emotion to finish reading; couldn’t speak even. And of course all of us have been changed by terrible grief in one form or another. I was afraid that the subject matter would inhibit honest opinions; I don’t seem to have much written down but the notes I do have reinforce reservations I already had about particular lines or words. Or may be I only recorded the comments I agreed with; can’t remember I was a bit spaced out for a while.

Commenting on the poems is strange. We usually start out diffident, then a slightly more assertive observation from one person can open the floodgates and we all wade in until it seems that there isn’t a line that isn’t questionable. It’s good that the author can’t comment until the end; could get quite heated. Obviously no one is magic so they unaware that you might have spent ages selecting a particular word or term. I commented on a sequence of s-words that I thought sounded slurpy; but the writer responded that that is how 13-years olds eat soup; which is quite right.

I was glad with the Jimmy Woods opinion. I’d really struggled to recreate the weirdness of him inhabiting that place and time (strange enough in itself) but being of another time himself. There was (mild) criticism of me for using academic words, argot, extant, sinistral which of course, I felt defensive about. I wanted to respond that they’re all words I use, and I like seeing new words in writing, and that I didn’t see why I should cater for the lowest common denominator; which of course no one suggested I should do for a moment. On reflection, they were probably right. No one criticised my using hecatomb in the dead baby poem, and that certainly isn’t I word I bandy around much, but I’m guessing there were other motives for going easy on that. My last stanza in Jimmy Woods, where I invoke Pan came to me very quickly just before I sent the poem off:
Of another age even then
in speech and costume
Boots and vest, Father’s coat and watch chain
Like Father was Arcadian and he a son of Pan

I was smug because I’d got Jimmy’s dad, Arcadia and Pan in, but it did feel rather glib. And he a son of Pan particularly jarred. By Wednesday I’d changed it to:

Like Father was Arcadian, and Jim a son of Pan

Which sounded a bit more honest, but also Jim seemed a bit too familiar for the atmosphere I was trying to recapture. I think people did sometimes address him as Jim, but he was always referred to as Jimmy Woods, both names. Anyway, the pat-ness didn’t escape the group; which is good.

I drove past Jimmy Woods’ old house this week. In fact I went to a funeral at the church where he was the grave digger. His house is completely done-up and desirable now. The church is much the same. It was the funeral of the mother of the two best friends I had when I was growing up. Like us all she was a complex character but an exceptionally loyal and protective mother and always kind to me when I was young. I tried to base the way I looked after my children and their friends on her approach toward me. Such flattering things were said about her, I just can’t imagine anything so fine being said at my funeral; with the exception of, ‘she wasn’t a plaster saint’. The partner of one of her daughters spoke about her, but opened by saying that he’d known her for 20 years, ‘since I fell in love with one of her daughters’. I think that part moved me more than any other. To use that opportunity to assert his love; she’s a lucky girl to inspire such devotion; I was very jealous. It was my first wicker coffin, it was also probably the first time I’d attended an overtly religious funeral service since I lost my faith good and proper. This produced in my mind, moments of pure absurdity. What were we all doing in that building saying those things about someone, or two people, I really don’t believe existed? I read a little piece by Euan Ferguson in the Observer Review on 26/10/08. He wrote about how failure to wear a poppy on television after the first bloom marks you out as a toxic charlatan. He added that someone had tried to tell him that you had to wear your poppy with the little green leaf pointed exactly at 11 o’clock to mark the time of commemoration. Thus, he opines, ‘evolve the nonsensical tropes of religion’. Wish I’d written that. But still there’s a part of me that yearns for that ritual, manmade as I’m sure it is.

I drove my Dad to the funeral, he is a Jim too. He was a Royal Marine Commando in the last years of the Second World War; he is very brave and was very strong but he is the least violent or aggressive man I know. When I was younger I used to try to talk to him about CND and anti militaristic ideals, he quieted me one day by saying he hadn’t wanted to fight but that he did it to stop his children being slaves under Hitler.

My Dad, Jim, is a year older than my friends’ mother. In the 1950s she used to like him to sing September Song as sung by Walter Huston. The song seems very apt, both the season and the lyrics; which talk of days dwindling down to a precious few. I expected him to be terribly sad at the service and I wore a poppy to try to please him, wore it with the little green leaf pointed at 11 o’clock. But he didn’t seem unduly sad; and he didn’t seem to notice the poppy; a year ago he would’ve. He’s almost 85 and terribly diminished now, almost as if he’s leaking life.

I saw some policemen wearing bobble hats the other day; black knitted with POLICE written in yellow on the fold-over at the front. Well, they didn’t have bobbles, but they were knitted and I consider it worthy of recording.

Ellie’s take on the Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross thing was; ‘what did they expect when they put two boys in a room with a live microphone?’