Thank you Cat Coule

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I much prefer writing in a workshop setting, or with my local writing groups where we all tend to pitch in something by way of a prompt, then give ourselves twenty minutes or so to write while the host makes the tea! But of course, there are times when I can’t attend the workshops or meetings and then I’m left to my own devices.
One thing I’ve found helpful recently are Cat Coule’s writing workshops on You Tube. They tend to follow a set format where you’re guided through a series of short tasks, including making lists, considering the senses, asking yourself questions, writing down memories and wishes etc. These notes are the first stage of your poem. You’re then instructed to use various lines from the notes, but not necessarily in chronological order. Also, you might be asked to combine images from different sections of the notes. For example, one of your lists might be three colours (not primary colours – she encourages you to be poetic – I had verdigris, copper, bronze). Another section might be an object you’ve encountered in a dream, or three things people have said to you in the last 48 hours. However, instead of simply transposing these lines into a poem, you might have to combine them somehow. I can see I had ‘copper stars’ and ‘copper heart’ in my notes at this point. By following her instructions, the writer is forced to deal with a series of disruptions, rather than just transcribe the choicest lines. And something happens when you do this which is akin to the cut-up process I described in my last post. You start making connections and new ideas surface. You’re not asked to use all the sections of your notes, which leaves part of the process open to interpretation. You may want to use everything you wrote, or you may choose to leave things out. Either way, it produces writing with lots of space around it.
So, if you’re stuck for inspiration, you might want to give the workshops a go. Click here for her workshop on writing a love poem, which is just one of many exercises available.
Thank you Cat Coule for keeping me inspired.

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Cubomania

 

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Cubomania – a page from my notebook.

I thought I’d start the New Year by sharing a page from my notebook. I’ve been experimenting with cut up texts for a while now, but over the last couple of weeks I’ve tried the Surrealist idea of cubomania. It’s more usual for images to be cut into squares and put back together to create a picture collage, but I’ve applied it to written texts. I’ve used newspapers, magazines, essays, letters, pages from novels, even snippets of my own writing. What does it generate? Well, you have to have an open mind and accept that the sense, if there is any, is created by the way the brain makes connections between the words and phrases. Therefore, the meaning I get from the juxtaposition of these texts is probably not the same as someone else would get. Here’s how it looks when I’ve made some of those connections:

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Our local writing group met for the first session of the year last night and we talked a little about what the value of this sort of thing is. Does it generate poems? Yes, but they’re off the wall, although if you play around a bit, meanings start to surface that do have resonance. Are the poems likely to have a wide readership? No, because they don’t provide that instant (and broadly accessible) hit that you get from a great line of poetry, for example, ‘the wet socket of a levered stone’ (from ‘Every Creeping Thing’ in Jacob Polley’s Jackself). However, I’d argue that the process of creating a poem using this method is a great way of freeing up the mind, of putting the ego to one side and not having any expectations about the finished product. If you’re strict with yourself, and only use the words in the collage, you’re imposing a set of rules you don’t normally work by. This gives you a sort of confidence (some of my writing group would say it’s misplaced confidence but that’s okay). The process of writing can be full of self doubt. An exercise like this needs you to focus. There’s no time for self doubt or procrastination, not in the initial stages. It’s almost a moving meditation, dividing up the texts, cutting them into squares, pasting them in the notebook. Then there’s the focus you need to find the words and phrases that you can use, that go together to make new meaning. Finally, you’re looking to build a poem out of these phrases. It takes concentration. You’re making something new. It’s better to be doing than not doing. You’ll probably decide it’s rubbish in the end, but then there’s a phrase lodged in your brain that wasn’t there before. You’re going to use it to write a better poem, aren’t you? And in case you’re wondering what I got out of the page I’ve shared above, here’s the poem. Pelt it with eggs if you like. It’s very resilient!

 

Testing Sophocles

poor everyone
sometimes you’re it
gentle iron nutrients     no skill involved

sometimes you’re flesh
teeth damned in the pond
crawling down houses at night

joys propelled like the ornithologist’s
impossible strategies
for mental involvement

free some blue     a kooky older Londoner
kind of allegory
the distillation of the rigorous touch

nothing has any power
that line break
the hard earned cash of failure

double gold petri-dish sun
the concept of luck
scratchcards take precedence over language

 

 

 

No Shit!

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Photo by J. Mellor, Vrsovice, Prague

In his book, Damn Good Advice (for people with talent), George Lois says: ‘Safe, conventional work is the ticket to oblivion’. I went through a phase, earlier this year, where I consciously tried to be more experimental in order to create something new in my poetry. It was nice to feel I had some freedom. I wasn’t writing to suit anyone, not even myself (I say this because sometimes I didn’t like what I wrote or I didn’t really enjoy the process). I disrupted the poems, cutting lines and phrases short. I juxtaposed two halves of different lines which moved the poem away from its original meaning – sometimes into pure nonsense. I used found texts and then ‘translated’ them using the Oulipo N+7 formula (look up each noun in the dictionary and substitute it with the seventh noun following). Then I shared some of the pieces in workshops and had some awkward moments – those silences where people can’t make head nor tail of what you’ve written but are too polite to say so! All grist to the mill I told myself. Pushing on, I submitted some of these poems (some are still out there in the small press ether) and received the rejections. That’s okay. I have a tough skin. Plus, I never really had any expectations of this work. It was just a way of forcing myself into a new creative space. Then that magical thing happened. One of the poems was accepted. It will appear next year in Poetry Salzburg Review. Now, that’s not to say that the other poems are any good. Some I’ve resubmitted. Others I’ve abandoned. But the journey has been interesting and I’ve learnt to be a bit more courageous on the way.
So, be brave. Experiment now and then. You never know where it might lead you.

Lois, G., Damn Good Advice (for people with talent), (Phaidon, 2012)

 

Editor’s Note

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I had a poem in Butcher’s Dog recently (Issue 10, Autumn 17). I’ve had work in there before, but not for quite a while (despite submitting frequently). What I take from this is that it’s important to stick at it, whether it’s writing, editing or submitting. The old saying, if at first you don’t succeed, rings true, although I’d qualify this by saying that I go through phases when I don’t feel I have anything worth sending out. That’s okay as long as it doesn’t last too long.
What I wanted to share is the fact that the poem in Butcher’s Dog had been rejected elsewhere, so in this case it really was worth persevering. I usually try two or three magazines with a poem before I put it aside. That’s not necessarily a reflection on the quality of the poem, but of my loss of interest. I have a low tolerance threshold for my own work; the older it is, the less enthusiasm I have for it. I know some writers will send the same poem to many more than three publications before giving up. Maybe I should learn from that.
Here’s an extract from the Editor’s note in Butcher’s Dog:

Whilst there is darkness in this selection, there is light and wonder too. Loneliness is tempered with moments of connection and dependency. There is fragility amongst the chaos and a searching to find out who we are and how we fit our own skins. There is love, no matter how complicated and flawed it might be …
(George Aird, James Giddings and Degna Stone)

I think my poem falls into the ‘moments of connection and dependency’ category. And as I haven’t put a poem on the blog for a while, I thought I should share it, so here it is. Of course it would be even better if some of you bought the magazine!

 

At Home

My mother walks as if a surgical instrument
has been left inside her.
Her operations are vague and plentiful,
her recoveries joyless as driving a brown Mini Metro.

She has the satisfying ring of good cutlery,
especially when she collides with my father,
who is a cut glass decanter,
24% lead crystal with a heavy stopper.

See the whiskey slosh up his sides
then settle in the cold tank of his stomach.
Scaled up he’d be a super tanker
requiring 15 miles notice to come to a halt.

This is why my mother often cups her hands
to shout the simplest things, such as:
where is your other grey sock
and would you like half a scone now?

The word scone has a long vowel,
to rhyme with groan, moan and intone,
all suitable synonyms for their conversations,
except when there’s something good on tv.

 

 

 

 

Writing is a damn funny game …

 

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Graffiti by Kid Acne, photo by J.Mellor

I’ve chosen this picture of Kid Acne’s graffiti for this post because it sums up how I feel about my writing sometimes: either I’m half-naked but ready for battle, or I’m a sad and exhausted clown slumped on the pavement. Either way, I have to plough on. Write enough and something will surface that I’m happy with.
I’ve been reading Charles Bukowski’s letters recently. There’s a fantastic sense of determination in them. In fact, the things he says make me realise I can be a bit complacent at times. Writing’s a hobby for me, albeit a serious and time consuming one. I don’t expect too much from it, certainly not fame or fortune. However, if I don’t get work accepted in magazines from time to time, I tend to get anxious and doubt myself.
Bukowski’s very insightful on the strange power of acceptance and rejection. Here’s an extract from a letter he wrote in 1963 to a publisher (of a small press magazine I think) after having an astounding 11 poems accepted.

Writing is a damn funny game. Rejection helps because it makes you write better; acceptance helps because it keeps you writing. I will be 43 years old in 11 days. It seems o.k. to write poetry at 23 but when you’re going at it at 43 you’ve got to figure there’s something a little twisted in your head, but that’s o.k. – another smoke, another drink, another woman in your bed, and the sidewalks are still there and the worms and the flies and the sun; and it’s a man’s own business if he’d rather fiddle with a poem than invest in real estate, and eleven poems are good, glad you found so many. The curtains wave like a flag over my country and the beer is tall.

I love that last line. So, with Bukowski at my shoulder, I say: the sleet is falling on the Velux and the wine is uncorked.
Better go and do some work!

Charles Bukowski on Writing, ed. Abel Debritto (Cannongate, 2015)

 

Intimate Understanding

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Review of Out of the Weather by Angelina D’Roza (Orbis, Summer 2017).

I was thrilled to read Angelina D’Roza’s review of my pamphlet, Out of the Weather, in this summer’s issue of Orbis (extract below). I’ve been trying to get some new poems together to send out to various poetry magazine’s recently. It’s an odd feeling, one I never fully understand, how no matter what experience I’ve gathered along the way, it always feels like I’m starting from the beginning. Maybe I’m being a bit hard on myself, which is why it’s such a good feeling when someone notices your work and likes it, and understands what you’re trying to do. So, thank you Angelina for your intimate understanding of my work.

“… for all its wealth of subject, it is the heart which is this pamphlet’s theme, leading us into the most intimate spaces.
The key to the emotional core may come via record-breaking sky-dives (‘Aftermath’): ‘like that man testing the limit of the human body’, hoping ‘he would simply feel the air ripple // {…} not start / to break up, lose consciousness, / not feel anymore.’ Or in ‘Propolis’, where ‘the stuff of bee spit and wax, a sealant turning soft in the sun, is not propolis, but putty around old windows; the way it hardens, leaves space so that the glass ‘rattles loose in the frame’. Or not glass and putty, ‘but those unwanted spaces’, between two people, perhaps, ‘where words land and rest’. To find that one thing is like another isn’t surprising, but the craft of it, the way the lines hold the surface and weight of the writing in tension, is surprising and often lovely.”   (Orbis, Summer 2017)

By the way, I can thoroughly recommend D’Roza’s Envies the Birds (Longbarrow Press, 2016). It’s a beautifully produced and highly accomplished first collection, packed with poignant and insightful poems, often challenging what can be done with form and subject matter. I know John Foggin has been concerning himself with hospital poems on his blog recently. D’Roza is one of the best contemporary exponents of the hospital poem. Here’s an extract from her poem, ‘Clockwork’:

We stare through ribs and pneumonia,   untitled
x-rays held to the partial eclipse,
and let the morning’s long words drift
like paper boats, the Latin for bones
and breath.

Or from the poem, ‘Days’ which is playfully reworked a number of times throughout the collection:

It always comes down to this one early,
one patient and his Polish, his dementia,
the way his emaciating body flounders
in the mattress pooling with faecal fluid

spilling from his stomach,

Anyway, buy her book and you’ll see how good her work is!

Human Landscapes

 

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Szapocznikow in her Paris studio, with Les Gants Roses (The Pink Gloves) (1971), asbestos, polyester, breast cast, gauze, rubber gloves. Photograph by Jacques Verroust.

Alina Szapocznikow: Human Landscapes, The Hepworth

In George Lois’ book, Damn Good Advice (for people with talent!) he advocates going to museums on a Sunday, rather than church. ‘I contend that the DNA of talent is stored within the great museums of the world. Museums are custodians of epiphanies and these epiphanies enter the central nervous system and the deep recesses of the mind.’ (Lois, 2014).
I’m lucky enough to live close to both the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and The Hepworth. Yesterday I visited the Alina Szapocznikow exhibition at The Hepworth. I loved the work, which was surreal, raw and thought-provoking. This quote, from a letter written by Szapocznikow in 1972, really hit home: ‘I produce awkward objects … Often everything is all mixed up, the situation is ambiguous, and sensory limits are erased’. It struck a chord with me because of the way I’ve been trying to disrupt the texts I’ve been producing lately. Reading at the Samuel Worth chapel in Sheffield on Saturday, I slipped in one of these disrupted (and maybe disruptive) texts, more as a way of testing myself than testing the poem. I got away with it and it was a good feeling. For the last few months, I haven’t had what I’d term a sense of direction, so much as a sense that I need to change direction. Lois is right. Museums and galleries are custodians of epiphanies. Seeing Szapocznikow’s work was inspirational. There’s no way of knowing whether it will impact on my work, but what’s important is the sense of exploration it engenders, that feeling of curiosity that keeps me interested in what I’m doing.

Lois, G., Damn Good Advice (for people with talent!), Phaidon, 2014, f.pub. 2012.

 

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Alina Szapocznikow, Cendrier de Célibataire I [The Bachelor’s Ashtray I], 1972. Coloured polyester resin and cigarette butts. Private collection. © ADAGP, Paris 2017. Courtesy The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow / Piotr Stanislawski / Galerie Loevenbruck, Paris. Photo Fabrice Gousset.