Sunday, 27 February 2011

Constraining your writing: univocal

The Inky Fool back in January told us about 'Gadsby' - a 50,000-word manuscript which romps along without any 'e's at all.

So I thought I'd just touch occasionally in coming posts on fun trials to conduct with your writing.

First up is univocal - writing which shuns all but a particular non-consonant, using, say "a" or "i" to stand in by proxy for its additional four chums.

This is part of a work by C.C. Bombaugh in 1890, using only "o":

No cool monsoons blow soft on Oxford dons,
Orthodox, jog-trot, book-worm Solomons


I did try it, and this is my stab at it.

(Warning: It's a bit odd, a tad racy and not my usual sort of thing. You can rip it to bits in a bit, BUT I want you to try doing your own first! It's tricky!)

What a drag!

Adam's a bad lad
Fact: bad at maths and can’t stand class
Alas - what plans Adam has!
A zany ad-man? RADA (Batman)?
Rap! A slam champ? A bard?
Start a band - all mad fans and WAGs?

Adam’s dad rants: What plans?
Tarmac gang? Stack cans at Asda?
Adam: Stack cans? That’s banana’s!
Adam asks Dan. Dan’s smart.
Dan says: Always warm at army barracks.

Lads land at camp, what a sham!
All starch and march. Bad days.
Anyway, Adam has an asthma attack.
Back at last, angry, antsy, and has cash!
Blags a flash car, an Astra - fast.
Stamp that gas! Damn blast - a crash.
Arm: small gash, Astra: vast scratch.
Bank says: card back, thanks.
Ta'ra backpack – Agra, Java, all that.

And Dan’s back. Tall, fab tan,
all blah blah blah Baghdad at war:
ranks, tanks, Saddam, bang bang.
Asks Anna – rampant Chav slag –
Fancy a shag? Anna wants an army man.
Jammy bastard: Anna’s chancy, always randy.
Anna’s flat’s all dark and hazy –
mmm...shady lady... mmm hash,
mmm brandy and…mmm? Clannad?...
anyway, hand wanks, spanks, anal pranks,
Dan’s hands at bra and pants…
…Aaaargh! Anna’s a lad in drag!
Man’s drawl: Thanks pal!
Fag ash, tacky damp, bad tang.
Aghast. Dan’s ‘lad’ has pangs.

Always a catch.

© C Kirwan

p.s. If you think this post is in a slightly unusual syntax, it's what's missing that you may pick up on - the scarcity, the drought, the want of ... what? Go to my first words and think about it! The truth is hiding in plain sight!

Friday, 25 February 2011

Poet Films

Another classic hashtag topic on Twitter has had me giggling this week: #poetfilms

I know many of you haven't got into Twitter so you miss the terrible terrible puns that are rife if you follow the right people (ie witty, clever types, not celebs!)

So I occasionally share some funnies here. Over the last few days, the topic has been films renamed to include famous poets (or poet-related terms). Here are some of my favourites (the @name is the Twitter i.d. of the perpetrator in each case)

@AsininePoetry: The Silence of the Iambs

@Sophie2608: The League of ExtrAuden-ary Gentlemen and Woolfe Creek

@firmpear: Batman Beginsberg

@ _jonb: Baudelaire of the White Worm

@Gerrarrdus Bring me the Head of Alfred, Lord Tennyson

@StevenBettles: Who Framed Roger McGough?

@fulhammatty: The Strange Case of Betjamin Button

@robinbogg: wall-ee cummings

Personal favourite: The Pantoum of the Opera

Oh no! I was going to do my Top Ten but Twitter just got 'overloaded'.

Anyone want to supply any more?

Monday, 21 February 2011

What to do if a dog eats your library book

I've noticed a lot of people coming to one of my earlier posts using the title of this post as a search term, but I fear that post may not have answered the question.

So here's a step-by-step guide:

1. Can you repair it yourself? - at least enough to appear intact for the 20 seconds it takes you to drop it on the counter and run? If 'yes' apply glue stick liberally but avoid sticky tape, staples and chewing gum.

2. Are there obvious teeth marks? If 'no' go to (6a)

3. Was it someone else's dog? If 'yes' go to (4). If 'no' go to (5)

4. Approach the owner, demand reparations and make empty threats to report the incident. (If they are bigger and meaner than you, you might want to skip this bit.) Go to (6)

5. Is your dog cute, with adorable puppy eyes, fluffy ears and a friendly nature? If 'no', rub his nose in the crumpled pages and make him sit in the corner with something by Dan Brown - that'll teach him. If 'yes', take him with you and go to (6)

6. At the library.

Several options here. Important: if the dog is with you, ensure it's well-groomed and toileted - libraries are very exciting places and accidents do happen - not just with puppies. Do not bring the dog out yet if attempting (6a), (6b) or 6(c) as it will weaken your argument (especially if it wees on the book). Have it ready in an appropriate container in case it is needed for (6d) onwards.

6a. Attempt the Jedi mind-trick by gazing into the eyes of the librarian and projecting this thought: 'the book is not damaged'. If the librarian accuses you of 'looking at her funny' or demands to know what happened to the book, go to (6b)

6b. Claim it was already in that condition when you borrowed it and that you 'only took it out to support the Save Our Libraries campaign' and how dare they suggest you would ever harm a book! If this fails, go to (6c)

6c. Admit there is a remote possibility the book was damaged in your care. Invent a suitable sob story - it was run over as you leapt to rescue a small child from an oncoming bus. Show appropriate scars.

6d. Come clean: 'The dog ate my library book'. Bring the cute dog out now if you have one. Engage the librarian in discussion about how important and innocent animals are. If this fails to get you off the hook, go to (6e)

6e. Say of course you will pay for the damage but you 'have no money on you just now'. Leave the library and never return. Or assume a new identity, change your name by Deed Poll and stay away 5 years. If this would be inconvenient go to (6g)

6f. Reveal yourself as the Council's 'mystery shopper'. Give feedback about their customer service. Explain the book was damaged deliberately for the exercise and 'just order another one, would you... you'll have my report in a few months'. If this is greeted with disbelieving laughter, go to (6g)

6g. Offer to replace the book. Be aware they will charge you full price. Offer to replace it yourself and order a second hand copy from Amazon for 1p.

In fact... If you just do (6g) you don't have to do any of the others really - everything will be sorted out nicely.In fact. If you just do (6g) everything will be sorted out nicely.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Compulsive volunteer

I used to be a compulsive volunteer.

David Cameron would have loved me. I'd have been up there at the vanguard of his Big Society.

If you wanted anything doing, my hand would shoot up first. I rarely stopped to consider. Let's blame my mum - she's always done her bit: from Meals on Wheels to Charity Shop, from the Probation Service to the Magistrates Court. I was brought up to think it was what people did

Even at 15 I was an active member of the Leos (a junior version of the Lions Club), at 20 I became a Special Constable (more on that here), at 24 I was on the run for a sponsored jailbreak with the Rotaract (junior Rotary Club) and two years later I was a full-time volunteer on a Kibbutz - which included working in a glue factory and a baby house (more on that here).

Even that didn't teach me a lesson. Back in England in my early thirties, I was dragged to a meeting of an environmental group by a friend who'd 'seen the (green) light.' I offered to write one newsletter and next thing I knew I was volunteering for them 45 hours a week running a new Eco Centre. And although I did eventually get some funding which meant I actually got paid to do that - the job description mysteriously never mentioned standing in a wheelie bin dressed as a pile of rubbish or running a two-day green fayre attended by 10,000 people, with one hundred whacky eco-warrior stall holders, local scallies trying to break in and a very aggressive bouncy castle man.

Slowly, painfully, I have learned by now that the phrase: 'I'll do that!' generally ends up with me dressed as a carrot at Woodside Ferry Terminal, chasing a gazebo across a windy field or naked in a field in Gloucestershire.

So if anyone wants me to run a play group for retired thespians, set up low-calorie soup kitchen for anorexic fashion models, train 'funny dogs for the boring', drive Deals on Wheels for housebound city traders or shake a collection tin for the Collection Tin Preservation Society I am not available any more.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Driving John Hegley

I was going to entitle this post: What to do if kidnapped by a 'comic beat poet' but to be fair - I wasn't exactly kidnapped and it was all my own fault.

Comedian/ performance poet/ 'people's poet laureate' John Hegley came to my library to do a writing and drawing workshop* today. And blooming marvelous it was too. He dealt very nicely with all ages (7 -70) with an intoxicating mix of comedy, rapid-tempo songs and mind-bending tasks that left everyone with a home-made booklet of their own thoughts, pictures and ideas.

It was life-affirming dammit.

I made some special big glasses for the event (see right). Sorry the picture's a bit blurry. (You can't get the staff you know.) He's mostly famous for is glasses and his dog. I didn't make a big dog. That would have been silly.

Here's a short example which includes both:

My doggie don't wear glasses

my doggie don't wear glasses
so they're lying when they say
a dog looks like its owner
aren't they

© John Hegley

Anyway, I could have just walked away - but I offered to give John a lift to the station... and then felt bad because he had lots of stuff to carry so said I'd take him to the Everyman Theatre where he has a gig tonight... but I was a bit over-awed and went into garbling mode...and then I didn't have my purse so had to ask for money for the tunnel... and enough to come back again please?... and then he was too early so he said let's have a drink ... and I didn't like to ask for money for the parking metre but I did want to have a drink because this was John Hegley - famous poet!... and we had a nice chat, then he said and by the way could I type fast? (I can!) and could I type some new stuff he'd written on the train... so then I wasn't in Kansas anymore - I was carrying a mandolin up Hope Street (rock 'n' roll!) and I was in a back room of the theatre, typing and trying to read his crazy-paving hieroglyphics while he distantly yodelled a sound check ... and I had a bite out of his quiche when he wasn't there and then tried to cut a straight line across it with a breadstick so it looked less like a bite (which doesn't work - in case you're wondering)... and then it was time to go so we filled my handbag with Green Room goodies and I came home. If I'd had any money I'd have stayed for the show. But hurrah - no parking ticket!

But I digress. How great was this cake - made specially by the sugar-craft group that meets at the library - with a dog shaped like a carrot and all his book covers on ( the most well-known are Glad to Wear Glasses and Dog)

Visit John's Wild World Website and have your own fun and games, or listen to his unique style of mandolin-backed performance here.

My favourite poem is Love Cuts - a fine antidote to Valentine's Day excesses.

* Every time I hear the word workshop in this context, I think of my friend G who always used to say: 'It's not a workshop unless it involves heavy machinery'

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Breaking News!

I promised you there'd be an announcement here today - and here it is:

BREAKING NEWS: Poetry24 is a brand-new blog for news-related and topical poetry being launched today by myself and Martin Hodges of Square Sunshine.

The aim is simple: to publish news-related or topical poetry that reflects what's happening in the world, or current affairs.

The idea was partly inspired by a response to this poem written by Martin. Blogger, Alan Burnett commented, "I am reading your words and at the same time watching the News24 reports from Cairo and thinking you might have invented Poetry24."

So - do YOU have something to say about current events in the world? Can you say it evocatively, with passion, rage, compassion and/or humour? Can you see things from a wider perspective or go right into the heart of the matter? Check out the submissions guidelines for details.

We've posted four example poems today - one each of our own (mine's here) and a couple today and more in the next few days from blogger poets we had approached earlier. After that, it's all up to poets out there to make it what we envisage - topical, thought-provoking, funny, moving, alarming... sometimes all at the same time!

We're both rather excited (and nervous) about this new project, and we do hope you'll follow the blog - or at least dip in from time to time. And it would be great if you could 'spread the word' about Poetry24 - on your blogs, Twitter, Facebook and even in the real world too!

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

...staring capitals, inch high

(I have my 'serious face' on today.) When I was in Prague in December, I saw a small memorial on St Wenceslas Square to a 20-year old student called Jan Palach, who, in 1969, burned himself to death in protest at the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.

I was too young to be aware at the time and we didn't cover that era in history, so there's no way I should even know the name and what he did. But I do.

The reason is a poem: Jan Palach, by Jane Mapstone. We must have only read it in passing at school but I've never forgotten parts of it:

I am only a thought in your mind
A headline on the paper of your thoughts
By tomorrow I will be relegated to a side column
And then I will disappear.


But in spite of the fact
That today you are moved by the staring capitals, inch high,
You don't understand the enormity,
The reality
That made me
Twenty one


(These are excerpts - a full transcript is below)

It isn't what most people might consider a 'great' poem - but maybe it is: in trying to find out more about it, I realised that it had a similar effect on other people too. It was written in 1969, by a 15-yr old school girl - an immediate and moving response to news she must have read about or perhaps seen on television. (Her mother comments on it here.)

The poem is right in some ways about newspapers - what is urgent and horrifying today is soon shoved in great yawning filing cabinets along with everything else under 'urgent' and 'horrifying'. But a poem can be more difficult to shake off - no-one ever asked me to learn it, it wasn't on the curriculum, but the exact words have stayed with me 30 years.

I feel I should write a rousing final line here before I leave you to the poem/ comments/ more cheery next blog. Something about the power of 'the right words in the right order' and how a poem is like a picture - reaching the parts something more prosaic can't reach (no dear - prosaic, not Prozac). I'm struggling to find the right words - but then, that's the point isn't it?

And all of this relates to an announcement being made on this blog tomorrow... watch this space!

Jan Palach

by Jane Mapstone

I am only a thought in your mind
A headline on the paper of your thoughts
By tomorrow I will be relegated to a side column
And then I will disappear.
And maybe, in a year from today
Some line in the 'In Memoriam' will commemorate my death
But that's all
And in five years you will hear my name and think
'Now who the hell was he?"
And your kids will learn my name for one of their history tests.

But in spite of the fact
That today you are moved by the staring capitals, inch high,
You don't understand the enormity,
The reality
That made me
Twenty one
You can't understand
You don't think about
The feelings that went through my body
As I poured the petrol over me
As I felt its stickiness running like blood down my arms
Down my legs
And you can't know
That with all my body
All my mind
Crying 'NO! NO!'
I found somewhere the necessity
To strike that match
To see it licking away at my clothes
To feel it biting away at my flesh
Consuming me
A person
Watching it as though I was sat at
the back of a cinema, watching a film,
Completely detached
Watching me dying
And you'll never know
That before the clouds of laughing smoke, and whirling pain
Merged into darkness
I thought that
Maybe I was wrong.
I am only a thought in your mind
A line in some volume of memory
I don't exist
I have no substance, flesh or feeling
Only decaying bones and decaying dreams
I died
You don't understand that
But think of this
I could have thrown stones and cracked your windows
I could have fought your policemen, burnt your cars
And made a public nuisance of myself
To gain attention

But what I did I can't do more than once
If you ignore it now then it is finished
If you just relegate me to your history books
Then there can be no point in what I did
No point. No reason
In burning myself to death
And I was wrong.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

You don't have to be mad...

Some people think I'm mad to want to be a poet. (Some people just think I'm mad.) But is there a link between poetry and mental illness?

A fellow blogger recently shared this link to a BBC article with me, which seems pretty keen on the idea.

To quote:

"Depression, madness and insanity are themes which have run throughout the history of poetry...poets are 20 times more likely to end up in an asylum than the general population."

I think there may be a link. But then mental illness is much more widespread than you might imagine. According to the World Health Authority, more than 1 in 3 people will suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder at some point in their lives. That means 20 of my followers ... actually probably more since you're my followers!

A few years ago I had a period of work-related stress and basically went to pieces. I ploughed on for a while, then left my job and went off abroad for a bit and when I came back a year later, was still shaky. I managed to have a panic attack during the relaxation part of a yoga class! - ended up bawling my eyes out uncontrollably. My friend's husband - a clinical psychologist - said it was 'cathartic' and 'people would pay good money for that'. I had some anxiety therapy, read self-help books, stayed at home a lot and eventually came out of it quite recently.

During this period, I didn't try to pretend I was ok. It wasn't anything to be ashamed of, was it? Although in a way I felt it was. But the surprising thing for me was just how many people I know (and yes, a lot of them are poets!) who told me they had suffered similar episodes. People I would never have thought of as having those sort of difficulties. There's a lot of it out there - but I suppose a lot of people don't talk about it.

It seems perfectly reasonable to me that those people who perhaps examine the world more closely ('creative types') are the ones most likely to find it wanting. The more deeply you look into the world, your own life, society, the more demons you are likely to find.

"Men have called me mad but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence"
Edgar Allan Poe

There's more about the links between creativity and schizophrenia here.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Go to Hell

I don't mean the title in a bad way - I was just trying it out for the tourist board of the Norwegian town called Hell... which quite often freezes over.

If the Aztecs knew about Norway, they would have thought it was Hell anyway... not because they have a fear of fjords or are troubled by trolls, but they believed the dead travelled to Mictlan, 'a neutral place found far to the north' - and if that isn't Norway, I don't know what is.

I've never been to Norway, but I may have already been to Hell. The Jewish / Islamic 'hell' is Gehenna - the valley of Hinnon outside the old city of Jerusalem where unsavoury types used to make burnt offerings of their (or possibly other people's) children. It came to be used as a general term for 'the place where bad people go for a good burning'. I'm paraphrasing here.

I love the way that so many places mentioned in the Old Testament are real locations, not made up Heaven's, Purgatories or Valhalla's. I've been to Armageddon... also know as Har Megiddo in Northern Israel, where 'the final battle' is supposed to take place. It isn't much to look at but there is a warren of tunnels underneath, where I once had a romantic interlude. Well, they say that if it's the end of the world, you might as well make love.

Incidentally, that was the second time I've returned unscathed from the end of the world (the first is here).

So what's YOUR idea of Hell?

Sunday, 6 February 2011

In space no one can hear you blog...

I don't normally go in for blogfests, but couldn't resist Ellie Garratt's latest, which asked for top ten science fiction and/or horror movie quotes.

So for a bit of fun, I've chosen to list, and then undermine, some classics.

1. "In space no-one can hear you scream"... but they can if you do it in Tesco. (Alien)

2. "I'll be back!" ... I left my shoes and socks here. (Terminator)

3. "I AM your father" ... and if you don't stop this minute, there'll be no Christmas (actual quote from my dad) (Star Wars IV)

4. "Feast your Eyes! Glut your soul on my accursed ugliness!” ...oh, I know, I'll just stick this comedy flower in front of my face. (Phantom the Opera 1925)

5. "It's alive! It's alive!" ... Does it want a cup of tea? (Frankenstein)

6. "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti" ... and my farts smelled of census forms for days afterwards (The Silence of the Lambs... or, as it's known in Liverpool, Shut Up Ewes)

7. "I only drink blood" ... but if you insist on the white, I'll have a couple of glasses anyway (Dracula)

8."Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make"... Turn the bloody noise down - don't you know what time it is! (ibid... ooh, I always wanted to say that!)

9. "One, two, Freddy's coming for you"... three four repeat after me: 'It's only a movie, it's only a movie!' (Nightmare on Elm Street)

10. "The box. You opened it. We came." ...mmm, Crunchy Nut. (Hellraiser)

OK, two questions:

a) Any more for any more? Feel free to join in!

b) How long will if be before I get 'Tesco Alien' amongst the keyword searches that bring people stumbling to this blog?

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Useful Answers to Difficult Questions

I have, for some time, been collecting useful answers - answers that can be used to respond to all manner of awkward, intrusive or just plain difficult questions.

So I'm going to share with you the best I have found... so far:

"That would be an ecumenical matter"

This comes from the wonderful, witty Father Ted comedy series. Ted attempts to present the appalling Father Jack as a still-functioning member of the clergy by training him to make this reply to any questions posed by a group of visiting bishops. I've tried it and it works - and not just with bishops! You might want to change 'ecumenical' for a similar but more contextual word like 'administrative' or 'ethical' The only problem is that the original is so well known amongst Ted fans, it has a subtext which says: 'I have no idea (a) what your question means, (b) what the answer is, or (c) what my opinions are on this matter.'

Works best with: technical or work-related . e.g. 'What is this company's policy on work/life balance?'

Doesn't work well with: direct questions. e.g. 'What time does it start?'

"I hear what you're saying but..." OR "I'm glad you asked me that..."

The classic riposte of the politician or hobby-arguer. It acknowledges the question, but puts it neatly to one side leaving you to launch on your own trajectory.

Works best: when, actually, you didn't hear what they were saying.

Doesn't work well with: direct questions. e.g. 'What time does it start?'


This is the haiku of useful answers: short, neat, ambiguous. It acknowledges both the question and a panoply of possible answers, all of which you are obviously fully conversant with but which you consider rather old hat.

Works best with: leading questions. e.g. 'Don't you think this is the biggest load of nonsense?'

Doesn't work well with: direct questions. e.g. 'What did you have for lunch?'

"It depends what you mean by ....[insert a word from their question]"

Ah, the classic 'answer a question with a question' gambit. Pick up the questioner on a word or phrase in their question and twist the discussion into a neat exploration of semantics, deflecting attention from the original question. I've even got away with: 'What do you mean by 'mean'?'

Works best: with almost any question. e.g. 'What did you have for lunch?' 'It depends what you mean by 'have'.'

Doesn't work well with: people who are easily provoked to physical violence.

And now...


... a new addition to the 'Useful Answers' Hall of Fame:

"Don't change the subject!"

This was in a comment on my earlier My dog has no nose post from Dave and I think it's a new classic. It's a little time machine packed into four words - you can use it to return to any point in the discussion (a point where you were on less shaky ground) and steer it on a new course from there.

Works best: almost any question, except...

Doesn't work well: when the conversation only begins with the question in question.

So... any more I should add to my list? ...And, more importantly - any questions?