Category Archives: Bardic

Community and Creativity

Every now and then I get to write the acknowledgement section for a book, and I usually start it by saying that no book is written in isolation. You’ll find a number of books that specifically mention how important this blog is in my writing process. These are workouts, tests, development sessions, they help me build towards those bigger projects. The feedback I get here enlarges my knowledge, broadens my perspective.

Of course it’s not just books. We are all doing whatever we do in a wider context. Most of us are supported or encouraged, or inspired by some else. Most of us are interacting with others, in whatever way makes sense. We’re engaging with other people who do the things we do so that our work is rooted, and relevant. We don’t have to slavishly copy what everyone else is doing but at the same time… books by authors who have read nothing in their field are easy to spot, and seldom good to read.

In any project, we stand, if not on the shoulders of giants, then on the shoulders of our many ancestors of tradition. It’s interesting to think about who they are and what they have given us.

I’m very, very lucky in that I belong to a number of creative communities that support me and give me places to put down roots. Moon Books, my Pagan publisher, is very much a community of writers and fellow travellers. I feel connected to the wider Pagan community, too. I feel a strong sense of connection with the Steampunk community, it inspires me, and means there’s a group of people I feel I’m creating things for. There’s comics community, and folk community and local community and these are all part of my mix as well.

What’s proved even more powerful for me is to be a part of a creative community that shares – be that in gathering together to air poems, stories and music, or co-creating art, or passing written texts back and forth. People who are willing to make larger and deeper connections around creative process. You can read Kevan Manwaring’s It Takes a Village to Raise a Story – about a project I’ve been involved in recently.  It’s an excellent reflection on collective creativity.

I’m also in the process of building a collective creative space, as hopelessmaine.com slowly draws people in to its dark and crazy world. People are coming to it from all the places I call home, and that’s heart warming. It’s important that there be safe spaces for people to stretch and develop, and this is one such.

The image of the lone genius, set apart from the world, making their thing in isolation, is not a healthy image. It’s not a sane image, or an image that offers the creator much joy or comfort. Some of us do need to retreat to the high tower now and then, but if there’s no one waiting for you to come out bearing the fruits of your labours, it is a sad and lonely sort of business. It’s a lot easier to keep creating when someone else believes in what you’re doing, and when what you are doing is part of some greater whole.


Getting beyond myself

Recently when I wrote about finding a voice for performance, Lorna Smithers raised the issue of finding voices that are not your own. I think this is a really important developmental stage for anyone working with words, and that it merited a follow up.

I’ve worked in publishing for about twenty years now, which has given me a broad perspective on what authors do. New authors tend to write autobiographically. This is one of the reasons first novels are often best left in a drawer! Write what you know is perfectly good advice for getting started, but it’s rarely enough to give you a great book. New authors will dramatise their own hopes and fears, revisit their own experiences and cast themselves as the unlikely hero.

Some authors never move past the autobiography stage. Some find they can’t, and drift away from writing as a consequence. The authors who will go on to do really good work will start to find things other than themselves interesting. They’ll wonder and ask questions, and start writing about things they did not know. Research and experimentation may replace casual experience. They may visit locations, swot up on subjects, observe others, and use this to fuel their imaginations.

In fairness, I have read some really good semi-autobiographical first novels. They tend to come about because the author has learned something from personal experience that they want to share. It’s not a form of wish fulfilment, but a desire to express something significant.

These days when I’m developing ideas for a novel, I spend time exploring the first person voices of many of the main characters. I try to get in their skin and see it all from their perspective. I’ll usually put that down to write in third person, but it helps to individualise characters and establish what makes them tick. It’s a bit like sketching.

Making art is often a curious balance of things. Imagination coming from within, inspiration coming from without. Working with what we know and feel, and with what is unknown and can only be speculated about. Grounding in known things and letting fly into realms of speculation. It’s in the tensions between these things that it becomes possible to create something original and exciting.


In search of a voice

Finding your voice is a key part of development for any creator working with language. In non-linguistic arts, finding your own style is just as relevant, so all of this can be applied more widely.

Give me a keyboard or a pen, and voice is not an issue for me. I started looking for my voice some twenty years ago. It has changed over time, as I have changed, but it’s not something I have to reach for any more. I know what I sound like on paper. That holds even if I’m working in first person and using a voice not strictly my own.

When it comes to performance, voice is something I’ve not sorted out. I can sing – in the most literal sense of having a voice, that’s been fine for nearly as long as the writing. I used to MC, without much confidence, I do talks and workshops at events and I now spend a lot of time in the company of performance poets and storytellers. It has become apparent to me this year that in terms of performing, I haven’t found my voice. I don’t have my own style.

Who do I want to be when I’m performing? What do I want to sound like? What impression do I want to create? I notice that some people have pronounced performance voices that are different from their personal voice, and some don’t. Some people use their everyday language, and some take on a very different vocabulary for the stage. How words are paced, the tones used, the physical movement or absence thereof all goes into creating an overall effect.

Part of what makes my written voice the way it is, is that I pause to consider my phrasing. I’m not the sort of person who has to sweat out each line, but I don’t rush, either. Then I read it back and check that it does what I want it to do. I care about exact phrasing, because I want to convey specific meanings. I also want to avoid dogma, authority, accidentally excluding people, and unnecessary verbal aggression. When I’m speaking, I can’t edit. I can of course write ahead of time and commit it to memory, but that can result in a more stilted performance unconnected from what’s going on around me.

The only way forward is to experiment. I need to try out different ways of doing things, and see what happens. I need to be willing to make mistakes, change direction, and feel uncomfortable. I cannot expect to magically have my speaking voice turn up and function at a professional level and I am going to have to learn how to do a decent job in the company of people whose experience and ability far exceeds mine. There is no scope for development without some risk taking. While I’ve no great enthusiasm for falling flat on my face in public, I also have no desire to stay put. Overcoming the fear of looking like a prat in front of people I respect has not been easy, but I think I’m there now.

I know that my main aims are to be more relaxed about the whole thing and more able to trust my spoken voice. I’d like to be a better public speaker. Beyond that, I don’t know – which is also why the process is so important. There are many things I can’t figure out by wondering, but will come to understand by doing.


How to read poetry

Poetry, especially when offered in the first person, can seem profoundly intimate. I think it’s the most intense form of word expression available if you choose to use it that way. That intensity can help fuel the impression that the poetry is an exposing of self.

I suspect the whole business is further complicated by what we might end up reading and hearing – professional contemporary poetry is rare. The industry believes that people no longer buy poetry. As a consequence, what any of us are most likely to encounter at slams or online or in poetry groups, is people who do very much seem to be writing from the heart. Poetry as catharsis, as healing process, cheaper than therapy.

When I posted ‘my facebookfriend has unfriended me’ a bit back, there were sounds of condolence, ‘sorry you’ve had this experience’. There wasn’t a specific experience underlying it, and the emotional energy came from a different set of recent experiences that had annoyed me, but which I couldn’t write about in a way I found useful or amusing. Alchemical transformations in the writing process turn original experience into something that makes sense.

The ‘I’ of the poet can be as much a device as a story author speaking in first person. The ‘voice’ of a poet can be as much a construction as any other form of art. How much do we read the poet in the poem? I know I do it, encountering the poetry of friends, sometimes knowing about some bits they’ve drawn from experience, inferring something of the heart and soul where perhaps what I’ve seen is craft and inspiration.

A poem can be true, without being any kind of literal truth.

A poet can be honest and authentic, without revealing anything of their own story.

But to what extent do we, as readers and audience, need to feel that the poet is indeed hefting up a bit of their heart, or putting a slice of their soul in front of us?


The Hopeless Maine Arts and Crafts movement

At present I’m spending my afternoons making horrible fish art, painting profoundly wrong willow pattern onto household objects, and imagining the arts life of Hopeless, Maine. I’ve never taken world building so far or so literally before.

I’ve been involved with the isolated island of Hopeless Maine for about a decade. It is the brain child of Tom Brown, who first lured me in to writing about it back when we only knew each other online. I married him, and that came out of working together for years on this project. He’s a man with a lot of tentacles.

Opportunities to take Hopeless things out in public have had me making, pondering and inventing for some weeks now. For example, I’ve been making fake dead moths. The Victorians were keen on collecting moths and butterflies, killing them and pinning them to boards. I had a display case turn up full of dead flowers – a rather garish bit of tourist trash. Clearly, the only way forward would be to make the moths from scratch. Mostly out of left over, found, or recycled things. Making them has led naturally to naming them, so we’ve got Granny’s Shroud, the Most Inedible Land Moth and the Poison Druid amongst others (so named because it is partly made of mistletoe, in case you were wondering).

Willow pattern is a widely subverted thing, but I’ve learned a lot hand painting it onto objects. What we see mostly today are factory made, printed to be all the same willow patterns. A foray to my local museum showed me hand painted porcelain, no two quite the same. The idiosyncrasies of the individual painter become a thing, and if there’s one thing I can do, it’s idiosyncrasy. Even so, letting go of the standards of factory produced items to do something that is unique, is not easy. But, what else is an arts and crafts movement for?

I’ve worked out why Hopeless Maine has a tradition of horrible fish art. It’s placatory. People refer to fish (both the main food source and one of the things most likely to kill you) in the way other communities talk of faeries. The Kindly Ones. The Good Neighbours. They don’t call it horrible fish art, they talk about the lovely, generous fish. But, most of the fish are horrible, and the art is no better, so there we are. This is one of the points at which I’ll be generating flash fiction cards to go out in public with the objects.

I also know what’s going on with Werewolf mark making. There’s a fashion in fine art at the moment to talk not about drawing but about mark making. Tom and I do not identify as fine art. Most of the time he’s an illustrator and I’m a colourist and crafter. We do identify with folk art, and things made for people – arts and crafts of course being about mixing the beautiful and the useful. So we are taking a little side swipe at the language of Art, with the werewolf mark making. And there is a little story to tell about the controversies caused because the werewolves probably don’t make the marks deliberately, does that disqualify it is True Art?

If this sort of twisted whimsy appeals, do saunter over to www.hopelessmaine.com where all manner of related other silliness goes on.


My facebook friend has unfriended me: A Poem

I am so old I remember when unfriend was not a word,

We fell out, fought and argued, we stopped talking and moved on.

Liking took more effort than a little finger movement,

We shared clothing, books and boyfriends, films and bad ideas.

 

My facebook friend has unfriended me but given me no word,

To argue or explain and this puts me in a limbo

Between anger and confusion asking what was it I did?

What was unacceptable, which statement proved inedible

What ghastly tales have they been told by former facebook friends

Who should have better things to do since they too unfriended me.

 

Those we cast aside so easily with just a little click

Breed resentment in the dark net that lives inside our minds.

Hate-reading each other’s blogs for stimulants to anger highs,

Our most self-righteous anger yet, heady and delicious.

 

My facebook friend has unfriended me – I think it is as well.

Had I known they were this sort of soul, the sort to slink away,

The cowardly, the silent, the gone without a word,

I would have unfriended them myself, instead.

 

I don’t need that kind of shit in my life.

 

Keep my arsy moral highground by spelling out the problem

Old style unfriendly to send them on their way.

I didn’t need those likes or their empty validations

There remain thousands more people I have never met

Who are willing to send me kitten photos.


MCing as a bardic skill

At first glance, taking on the role of master of ceremonies for an event might look more like organising than bard craft. However, to do it well, you need a quicksilver tongue and the ability to improvise. A good MC is a good bard. The job of MC means reacting off the cuff to all the performances and to any other unforeseen events. To shape the enthusiasm of many into something coherent takes skill, and to make an evening out of a bunch of people doing stuff isn’t as easy as it looks.

If an event is being run by someone who gets up to introduce and thank performers, then the style of that person will shape the whole gathering. Whether it feels competitive or inclusive, whether there’s a sense of hierarchy or an equal footing, whether some performers are more valued than others, will often be determined by what the MC does.

Of course the being judgemental is important – the bard praises the excellent, and may try to find ways to quietly re-direct the people who are way off the mark, and will act to stop the disruptive and so forth. That judgement will often come over in the nuance of a turn of phrase, or a hint in the body language because if you are heavy handed you can lose the audience.

When the MC is relaxed, good humoured and encouraging, more people may feel empowered to have a go. A good word at the end of a piece can lift a performer and inspire them to renewed efforts and greater confidence.

The MC creates the flow of an event, smoothes the transition between performers, gives shape to what might otherwise be chaos. The MC is the one who makes sure that a bardic space does not simply get taken over by the loudest and most confident, but holds room for those who aren’t as brash and assertive. Without someone in this role, it’s easy for a dominant few or a clique to take over a performance space and exclude anyone who is not one of their own, or not pushy enough to get in.

Often, when an MC does a good job, you barely notice them. They foreground the performers and keep things running smoothly, and they will barely feature in your memory of what happened. Those who have taken MCing to another level may be doing it as performance in its own right, which is also a fine way of working. MCs who can make the audience laugh, and can drop their own gems into the mix without breaking the flow can be very engaging to watch. MCs who are performers can be the opening act for the event, using their own performance to warm up and settle down the audience to the benefit of everyone else.


In spite of A.A Milne – a poem

The King asked the Queen

And the Queen asked the dairymaid

Could we have some butter,

For the royal slice of bread?

 

The maid asked the cow,

And the cow was not obliging.

I am tired of exploitation,

Is what the bovine said.

 

And while we’re on the subject,

What is it with monarchy

What kind of man can’t sort out

What he puts upon his bread?

 

The cow said, he’s a patriarch

I find him most annoying,

Look how he makes the Queen

Sort all the daft things in his head.

 

And why are you a dairymaid?

I think we should be asking.

The workshy Queen has hands of white

Your busy paws are red.

 

So tell the King we’ve gone on strike,

We will not do his bidding

We want fairness and equality

And better lives instead.

 

If he wants some sodding butter

Well, he’s got so much of everything,

He should try some of his money

On his royal slice of bread.


The latest Hopeless adventures

There have been some developments this week that I am excited about and want to share…

Anyone who has been with the blog for a while will have likely picked up that one of the things I do is a graphic novel series called Hopeless Maine. It is a setting my other half came up with many years ago, and the essence of the main characters comes from him. He asked me to take on writing the stories and script, long before we got ourselves organised romantically!

Back when we ran Hopeless Maine as a webcomic, and with a weekly blog/newspaper for the island, we had a lot of interaction from people. This year we decided to open Hopeless up to collaboration and play, and the results have far surpassed anything I could have dared to hope for.

For a while now we’ve had pieces every Friday for www.hopelessmaine.com expanding on island life in all manner of glorious ways. This week saw the arrival of a new column that will go out each Tuesday – Tales from the Squid and Teapot – the first of which can be found here https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2017/04/25/%E2%80%8Bobit-sir-fromebridge-whitminster/

The columnist for Tales from The Squid and Teapot is Martin Pearson AKA my Dad. He’s a natural when it comes to describing the life of Hopeless, and this isn’t really a coincidence at all. The books I encountered as a child, the things I find funny,  the way I think and the kind of phrasing I use has all, to some degree, been influenced by him. He’s always written, but not tended to publish, so it’s a delight to be able to lure him out in this manner.

Our other exciting development is a plan for Hopeless Maine the roleplay game. A new blog has been set up for this by Keith Healing, and discussions are under way about how to turn Hopeless into a set of playable mechanics, that allow creativity and improvising. I feel the need to mention at this point that I played a lot of role play in my teens – mostly D&D (Dragonlance), AD&D a bit of 3rd edition D&D, Some White Wolf (Changeling, Mage and Vampire) some Warhammer, a bit of Star Wars, a few rounds of Shadow Run, and others. I’ve also run games. I was never much attracted to playing magic users because the magic seemed dull, prescriptive, too combat orientated and frankly not that magical. This, will be different, and I’m excited about that. There will also, (take note, steampunks) be something enabling invention. It won’t assume combat is how things get done, but will allow for hitting things with a frying pan in an emergency. Early days, but much potential. You can find more about that here –https://hopelesstraveller.wordpress.com/


A poem about poets

The Poets have Gone Out

 

The Poets have gone to the hills

Free from domestic nuisance and noise

They can speak of deeper, manly things:

Literature, philosophy, their own most recent work.

 

Later, in letters they will reflect on

Each other’s excellent, worthwhile thoughts.

Later again, academics will delve,

Ponder these exchanges, write papers on

The insights, teach students, build careers.

 

All the while, the wives of The Poets

Feed mouths, clean, mend, sew and tend.

Darn the socks of Poets

Make the breakfast of Poets

Raise the offspring of Poets

 

No record remaining of what they say

Once The Poets have gone out for the day.

 

(I was thinking very much about Victorian and early twentieth century writers when I wrote this. And a line from T.S. Eliot’s literary criticism that haunts me about how poetry should be dry, hard and manly, and Robert Graves’ obsession with the idea that men are poets and women are to embody the Goddess and be muses, and an array of other such annoyances in that vein.)