Do you ever get pulverized by the onslaught of social media and its talented way with making you feel small? I certainly do – because there’s so many excitable writers on Twitter just now that a Damien-Hirst multi-layered blatter effect happens as soon as I turn my screen on. And of course, it seems that everyone has something to promote, a new book or a series of events or summat, and I’m quite put out. Where do they find the time? Haven’t they got jobs or families? Why is their level of confidence so massive compared with the 40 watt bulb version I seem to have? Why do they have an army of associates cheering them on when I couldn’t even tell my mates at work that I’m a poet? And so on. Clearly, Twitter is bad for my health as well as my data allowance.
There’s a verse fest in my town this week, so I went along to a masterclass by a prominent male poet. Now, when I see the word masterclass, I expect some kind of class taught by a master – perhaps I’m influenced by ideas of painting demos, musicians sitting in a line with their instruments, or – yes, even a supercool poet sharing drafts and ‘what not to do’. Sadly, this guy thought a masterclass was 1.75 hours of talking about himself, with a high namedrop percentage and the special places he’s been now he’s at the top. I’m glad for the guy, I love it when writers are big news – but I’d paid £10 for that, and I could have found the same information on Wikithingi for nowt. The atmosphere in the room went strangely off-kilter as several audience members began to question his rationale for the sort of event he was giving us; and I could see the unease in the poet, who’d realised that yes, maybe he should have drawn up a plan before he started to walk onstage, and yes, maybe it is a bad idea to think that any old sentence is a pearl of wisdom because it is said by himself. All I learnt from this ‘masterclass’ was: a) write a plan, you idiot, and b) if you think you can get away with it, you can’t. An audience deserves what is written on the ticket, and if the performer isn’t prepared to deliver it, arts managers should look elsewhere.
Waiting, waiting. As ever. Sometimes it never seems to progress, does it? You write stuff, you send it out, and then it’s – the Void. I’m sure wellknown writers feel the same sort of thing, because whenever I go to readings or events, there’ll always be some Big Name outlining how hard it was for them to get started, and how awful it was, waiting for the yes/no envelopes (back in the day – no email!) and then the WAITING. Like, months. Not even a few days, no. Months. Well, I’m one of those preoccupied waiters right now, thinking of my little manuscript sitting there with all the other hopefuls as it shifts at a glacial pace towards a final decision. I’m glad to have made it this far of course. Past the initial selection, and on through what a film person would describe as Development Phase, even though it feels more like some dreadful half-state akin to a Dantean circle of Hell. Sometime this Spring I’ll get a final decision on that script, and it’ll be either a) cast into an even deeper darker further circle of non-being for all eternity, or b) it’ll be fanfares and a light at the end of the tunnel as another creative effort makes it into the real world at last.
Competition though. That’s a thing. I dislike competing with the other poets out there and I enter the minimum number of comps per year – two or three. I don’t see why poets should feel as if they must compete like frantic parents for a place at a selective academy, or why they should imagine they might gain ‘edge’ or career traction from being third in line. It’s like we’re all being trained to participate not as writers, but as gameshow contestants; to accept that Prizes Mean Points, and it’s somehow part of the reality of being a poet, instead of something which the market has thrust on us. We’re not at school, for heaven’s sake; you can write whatever you want and there’s probably a magazine or arts project out there which publishes exactly that kind of thing. You don’t have to throw good money after bad and send your poems in to Little Dripping’s Biennial Versefest Competition (1st prize £100). It’s not automatically on the job description of Being A Poet. If you add up a modest £50 which you might spend on comps per year, and multiply it by the number of years you might be active as a poet, you’re looking at 2k and beyond. For that kind of sum you could publish your own collection, hold a reading at an independent bookshop, and kickstart some interest in your actual work. Just putting it out there….
On a glorious autumn day last month, I set off for a favourite town in the Wolds, because I had a date with their annual festival of literature and craft. I had a good time as usual, but it was obvious how much the festival had changed from its previous incarnation as a district council project, funded and managed as part of the local authority public services. I’m sure the same has happened in your area too, particularly if you’re a smalltowner or living a long bus-ride away from the scene of action. Libraries closed, events pulled, funding stopped, publicity scaled down, and access denied. That’s the end result of course – access being denied to the arts and literature, things which people have relied on throughout the centuries to give them meaning and support. We’re lucky in that public interest companies and arts trusts may take up the programme which a local authority can no longer provide, but this is rarely a longterm solution. If your venue used to be a theatre studio or a library and now it’s a table in a shop, or an anonymous room in a business startup centre – beware. You can literally see how the arts are being trivialised and made less relevant, less attractive, and less of what the reading public deserves.
Well, I did my session in the room with the stained carpet and the rattling hatch in the sports venue nearly a mile out of town, and I was glad to do so. But it’s not the festival I used to set aside a whole weekend for, and it looks like one more casualty in the trend away from culture in the community. In other areas of the country, things appear to be different; festivals being created by enterprising bookshop owners and literary groups, and torrents of Twitter advertising the latest shows. But not everyone can get into a city or drive nearly a hundred miles to a venue straight after work – the rural areas are missing out on what the new-media driven urbanites can take for granted.
Well, what can I say. A week at Arvon is simply fabulous, dahling. I joined a course on musical theatre with the nicest bunch of people imaginable, who provided a week filled with laughter and song. It was exactly as honest and corny as it sounds. While I have no doubt that the tutors were rolling around laughing at what we’d done in the name of contemporary music, their expert guidance meant we could go ahead without feeling selfconscious about it – probably one of the biggest blocks to getting involved in any performance artform. Although I still can’t do one of my performance pieces without laughing, I feel as though I’ve made inroads into stagecraft and entertainment – factors which are going to help now I’m on the platform more often.
If you haven’t been to Arvon, I can’t recommend it highly enough. While it seems expensive on the surface, there’s a decent grants system which operates a sliding scale of contributions according to need, and once you’re there on the premises, you don’t have any outlay unless you fancy taking the local bus into Hebden Bridge, for instance. As it was, my week was so intensive that I didn’t have the time to go for a walk, let alone explore the area – so yes, it was cost-effective in the long run. I had the time to take some photos though, and here is the unique Yorkshire mill landscape in its late-summer glory.
Back to work with a vengeance now, as term restarts and a new batch of students flood in to my regional college near the bottom corner of Lincolnshire. I’m providing a workshop for Wolds Words later in October – looking forward to this, as Louth is one of my favourite towns and it’s always a pleasure to do stuff around this county. But my head’s still reeling from the words I wrote last week, and I’m hoping that soon I’ll have the confidence to integrate soundscapes with some of the poems I’ve written.
At a Shoestring Press celebration in Nottingham a couple of weeks ago, I read a poem from my early Flambard collection, Secret Villages. ‘Off the Planet with Luminous Joy’ features in a new anthology, Strike Up the Band, which outlines just how diverse and longlasting the Shoestring ‘stable’ has turned out to be. There’s a Youtube video of the whole event (it should be findable under Five Leaves Bookshop or David Belbin) where you’ll also hear Roy Marshall, Wayne Burrows, Kathryn Daszkiewicz, and lots of other luminaries of the East Midlands scene. This latest collection marks John Lucas’ 80th year, and it was edited by Merryn Williams, who also had a success with Poems for Jeremy Corbyn recently.
Apart from that it’s a solid few weeks of tapping the keyboard as I make best use of my term-only job by working on scripts when it’s not a term any more. Like anyone else, I can’t always tell whether my work is any good; I’m experienced at poetry, but this doesn’t mean to say that any other kind of work is publishable, and I’m often not the best judge of my own writing. Over the past six months I’ve been working as a volunteer script reader for the Valley Press imprint, and it’s curious how often people send out scripts that are simply not ready – either inadequately checked, or not fully realised as literature. It’s made me sharpen up my own act and look again at things I was trying to send out for competitions in the past – and sure enough, I can see that I exhibited some of the problems which I now observe coming at me from the Valley script pile!
I’m almost at the end of drafting the third installment of the Vicarage trilogy: the first installment is trailered on here, while the first and second parts are still available on Kindle ebooks. I know what my overall narrative arc should be, but it’s still difficult, steering that runaway trolley through the narrow gate towards completion. I worry about all sorts, everything from wordage to descriptions to whether characters are funny in the right way, or unfunny in the wrong way…. it’s never-ending. Ultimately though, any writer needs to call a halt, close the file, and put it out there. With any luck, some feedback will happen at some point in the future, and I’ll be able to revise the work until it fits the space it was meant for.
Right, so that’s the launch done at Five Leaves Books – we had a packed audience, and I was delighted to find out that the event was part of their Bread and Roses radical book series, including revolution, urban squatting and the popular Union leader Bob Crow! As usual I arrived miles too early for the event, and was caught out by punitive parking charges in the city centre – so instead of sitting nonchalantly in a trendy cafe with a paper and a latte like a denizen of the Left Bank, I was stamping around the precinct filled with rage because all my money was in the ticket machine and I couldn’t go and buy anything.
Next up is Lowdham Book Fest, which is always brilliant and I go there every year for the famous Final Saturday, where there’s free events and loads of bookstalls. This time though, I’m one of the people on the platform, again with a selection from the Artisan. I’m trying to get a colour co-ordinated outfit to go with the book; if I find one in time…. that’s what I’ll be wearing. Before Lowdham it’s the 2nd Kendal Poetry Festival, which has quickly joined my annual ‘must go’ list. I’m not one of their official readers but it’s possible to join the open events and pick up valuable experience.
Shoestring Press has my latest on its website now, but there’s been talk recently of reprinting an earlier short collection, Borderville, which sold out. I think this would be an excellent idea, but then I’m biased. I’ll put news on here if such a thing comes to pass. Otherwise it’s back to the drawing board as I start putting lines and ideas together for The Next Thing. Later this summer I’m taking part in an Arvon week, getting out of my comfort zone by writing performance-poetry songs. I wouldn’t want to inflict this on an audience, but I’m keen to explore new ways of working, and you never know where it might lead.
Well, on the weekend when I’d normally be at the Much Wenlock Poetry Festival, I’m going to the Lincoln Ukulele Festival instead, for a day of general jollity and thrashing at my Cordoba 15SM. For any other ukers out there, I can recommend the Cordobas as reliable; not only a sweet balanced tone but extremely durable, which is necessary when you’re carting it around and it’s likely to end up beneath a suitcase in the boot. Alas, I’m no musician – I can do the chords and make a noise, but I don’t think I’ll be taking a solo slot any time soon….
I’ve always been intrigued by instruments, yet I’m no good at playing them unless they’re the ones everyone else can do, like the recorder or the kazoo. Back at Middle School I was surrounded by friends who could play all sorts, including one who dragged a fullsized acoustic guitar around which was taller than herself when it was stood up on end. I only had a very shrill Schott recorder made from Bakelite, which wasn’t about to set the orchestral world ablaze. And I believe that a fundamental inability to do ‘proper music’ is the reason why I diverted into poetry so early on – it’s the same wish to unite sound and rhythmic ideas along with sense.
Off to Lincoln then, for singarounds and a lot of cake at the interval. Meanwhile I’ve recently acquired a new jangly little companion, a Portuguese cavaquinho. I can recommend these too, for anyone out there who likes a change from the uke – they’re not loud, but full of character, and ideal for players with small hands. It’s taken me all day to get the strings right (a common problem) but now I’ve cracked it, I can’t put the thing down.
The Much Wenlock Poetry Fest will be back next year I hope; it’s on the poetry calendar now, and run by an expert group of people who’ve gone from 0 to 60 in just a few years. One of these, the founder Anna Dreda, also runs a terrific independent bookshop on the main street, a sort of dream-bookshop with crooked stairways and wooden floors, surprising corners and a warm atmosphere. If you’re over there in Shropshire, call in and buy something, even if it’s just a card or a local map. Without the indie bookshops, without the enthusiasts giving their time, there’s no ‘scene’ for us to feel a part of when we dare to call ourselves poets.