Tag Archives: poet

Poetry as a tool of entitlement

She was sat on a bench in a public space. She’d eaten her lunch and was looking at her phone. He came and sat at the other end of the bench. I was on the grass some yards away with other people. I sort of know him, but I don’t know his name.

Next thing we know, his voice is raised and he’s reading her his poetry. She’s hunched over her phone. I watch for a while, trying to work out how uncomfortable she is and whether I should go over. He moves to reciting poetry. It was not the sort of thing I think a person would be happy to have forced on them during their lunch break, unsolicited.

He starts telling her how to find him online. This may well be because she’s still staring intently at her phone. I do not know what she said because her voice was low and she’d not said much. He’s pretty loud. My suspicion is that she was not eager to look up more of his work on the internet.

She leaves, and I am relieved. She could have left at any time, she’d not been physically cornered and it was a public space. If he’d followed her I probably would have got involved. I think she was going back to work. However, she should have been free to have her lunch, sit on her bench and play with her phone. Fair enough to ask if someone wants to hear a poem, I guess, but not fair to keep grinding them out. Everything about her body language said that she wanted him to shut up and leave her alone, but he didn’t notice that, or didn’t care.

Being alone in a public space is not an invitation for an approach. Women are socially conditioned to be polite and not cause offence and to listen to men – I could write a great deal about the mechanics of this, but that’s not for today. Women don’t always feel safe antagonising men – even in the middle of the day in public spaces. If you give a man an excuse to get angry with you it can and does turn into verbal abuse and physical assault. Anyone who has previously experienced that won’t necessarily think it’s a good idea to stand up to a pushy man who wants their attention.

Of course in theory having a man recite poetry to you is romantic. In practice, if you don’t know the man, it might instead be weird and creepy. In this case, poetry was functioning as a monologue (manalogue) – great long stretches of the man saying his thing, where it would be rude to interrupt him because it’s a poem. It wasn’t a conversation. He wanted to speak and be listened to – her only role was to listen and approve. It’s the traditional role poetry casts women in – woman as muse and audience, man as speaker and poet. Silence and applause on one side, everything else on the other. Anyone who has read The White Goddess may remember that Robert Graves was very keen on this distribution of labour.

Writing poems does not entitle anyone to attention. Claiming to be a poet does not entitle anyone to interrupt someone else’s lunch break. It was an illustration of entitlement in action. It was difficult to know how to respond. While it was all happening, I made eye contact with the victim. I hope it reassured her to know that she was seen, and I hope I managed to express concern.

One of the things that put me off intervening, was that I do sort of know the guy. He turns up at things I go to and he’s been weird with me and I don’t want to invite more of it. Solidarity-fail on my part, but at the same time, a keen awareness that it shouldn’t have to be my job to sort out the entitled behaviour of a creepy poet.

It’s the sort of behaviour that, in a film or a romance novel would have been portrayed as wild, dashing, exciting – and the woman would probably have been swept off her feet. In real life, it’s unsettling, inappropriate and she didn’t want to know. We need to stop telling stories about how women love to be the passive recipients of such advances.

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How to be a poet

Creativity starts long before you sit down with the tools to make a piece. For the sake of coherence, I’m going to focus in this post specifically on what needs to happen before a poem is written.

A poet needs a love for and skill with language – I would say more so than any other kind of writer. A poet needs to be alert to the sounds, shapes, and rhymes of words. They also need to be conscious of the implications and possibilities each word they use may hold. Sensitivity to language and to the way it can be used is something to be involved with every day.

Poems tend to be smaller than other forms of writing. They call for precision. To be precise, you have to know what you want to get across. To do that well, you need to understand what the most important features are, or what will most readily evoke it. That in turn requires paying attention.

I think I can tell the difference between a poet who had an idea and sat down to flesh it out, and a poet who starts from keen observation and then whittles it down into a piece. The second instance produces poems that are richer and more surprising, because there’s an alertness to detail that you can’t have unless you’ve been working on it all along.

Any experience has the potential for poetry in it. The person who lives in a state of awareness, noticing the details, the nuances, the processes, is well placed to draw on that wealth of experience.

The person who only looks at their own experience, and does so in a fairly superficial way, tends to write poetry charged only by the feeling of the moment. What they won’t necessarily know how to do is make that accessible to other people. If you work only at the surface, you get the hot anger and the cold resentment, soft feelings of love and hollow feelings of loss… but there are many, many poems out there that talk in superficial metaphors about common human experiences. To have something new to say, you need to know more than this.

Poets also need to be people who read poetry. Other reading certainly helps, but encountering – as text or performance – really good poetry makes a lot of difference. Poetry can take many forms, and exists in many cultures. The shape of the piece is often part of where it comes from and what it needs to say. What you’d try to express in a Japanese haiku is not what you’d be trying to express in Icelandic rap, which is not what you’d find in the rap styles of urban America. Slam poetry has its own rhythms and purposes, but has a different flavour to poetry inspired directly by beat poets. And so on, and so forth. Know the form you mean to write in, and get to know as many other forms as you can, because it all helps.

You should be able to read back your finished and edited poem and justify every word and comma in it. You should know why each is there and why it couldn’t possibly be replaced by some other word, or a colon. You should be confident that no word could be taken away without harming the whole and that equally, no word could be added, without it causing more harm than help. You should reach this point confident that your poem does what you intended it to do, and that a reader or listener will be affected in the right way by it.


Polishing poetry

For many people, poetry hits the page in a rush of emotion and/or inspiration. Developing it beyond that point can feel a tad sacrilegious, and I remember it took me quite some time both to learn how to do it, and to be willing to do it. I’ve tried writing the kind of poetry that is tinkered out in a calmer and more intellectual way and I can’t honestly say I like the results. As writing poetry is something I do for myself, I don’t have to be workish about it, I can wait for the lightning bolt to strike.

My usual method (other methods no doubt exist and are just as valid) is to write in the heat of the moment, and then put the piece aside for a day or two. When I come back, I’ll read through and see how I feel about it. I then get in there line by line, and look hard at what I’ve created to see if it has any flaws that need fixing, or if it’s going in a direction and needs developing. I am rather prone to accidentally writing things that are almost sonnets, which may become actual sonnets on the second draft.

I look for word repetitions, and either swap new words in, or decide to take the repetition and make a feature of it. I check the line length and I take out any words that don’t need to be there, and I change any words that disrupt the flow of reading. If I’ve settled on a structure, I rework so that the poem fits the structure. I make sure that the rhythms don’t make it sound clunky and obvious. I look for opportunities to play with alliteration, and rhymes that aren’t at the ends of lines. I try and make sure it makes sense, not only to me, but to someone who has no idea what I was thinking and feeling when I wrote it.

I’ll look for clichés, mixed metaphors, weak similes. I’ll look at the tone and my language choices to make sure they align fairly well. That’s a particularly subjective process, I think. The mood of an individual word and the mood created by a set of words doesn’t always come across as you intend. I’ve found this repeatedly with a poet friend of mine whose heartfelt anger always reads like cool cynicism to me.

I may read it out loud, because this is a really good way of spotting anything that doesn’t have a good ring to it. I may read it to someone else to test it for sense and impact. I’ll look at the layout on the page and consider whether that supports the mood, readability, coherence, and I’ll move things round to try and help that. My final sweep is usually to sort out the punctuation, which I put down as a guide to how I want it read out loud.

Writing a poem is only ever half of a process, and the other half happens when you share it. No matter what you do to try and control the impact of the poem, there will always be ways people can interpret it that you didn’t intend. Even if you avoid metaphors and similes and try for the clearest communication you can, people understand different words in different ways. For me, this is part of the joy of the thing. What I mean, and what someone else hears will never perfectly align, because language is an imperfect form of communication. I’m aiming for the closest alignment I can get, relaxed about the inevitability of people hearing things, or reading things, I did not intend them to find.


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 Poet’s Journey

You sit all night upon a mountain top

To become either mad, or a poet,

But return to daily life much the same,

Hungry, and confused, but trying to speak

Of the night and the mountain and your soul.

You steadfastly research crazy mountains

A place for blows or visions is required,

A place of mystical transformation.

You sit all night on a new mountain top,

Come back speaking of the star jewelled sky,

Space between galaxies, eternity,

But the words are always inadequate.

You flirt with cliché and depression

In rhyming couplets you learn to despise.

Neither a poet, nor properly mad,

All you can do is keep climbing mountains,

And come back without the words to explain,

To people who have never mountain sat,

Whose eyes glaze over at your description.

You seek the company of poets,

Of lunatics bent on chasing the moon,

Deranged idealists and small children

Who want to hear all about your journey,

And for all your relentless sanity

Declare you to be one of their odd tribe.

Each night you all sit on mountain tops

Dreaming the way to distant pinnacles

Until your returning empty handed

Becomes a different kind of meaning.


Druid expectations

In my working life, I’m dealing with a vast array of people from different backgrounds. I notice I have a very interesting double-standard, depending on whether or not I’m dealing with someone who self-identifies as a Bard or Druid.

I don’t expect much in the way of personal honesty from most people. It’s not our culture, often it’s not needed, and people put brave faces on things, or over-egg, or pretend that they can, and bullshit me in assorted ways, some more well-meaning than others. In normal circumstances I can and do just get on with that. Give me a Bard or a Druid, and I expect Truth and Honour (definitely with capital letters). Someone taking those titles and not trying their best to be straight with me, I do not respond well to.

There are paralleles. Share a story with me, and I’ll make warm, encouraging noises. Tell me you want to be an author, and you’ll get a different kind of feedback. Tell me you are a professional author and I will be looking at your work to make a professional judgement about it.

Druid and Bard are not unlike professional titles. What they denote, for me, is a commitment to having certain standards around how you live and behave. What those standards are will be personal, but Truth and Honour, as you understand them will be a part of that mix. Adopt those titles, and I will see you in a different light. I am much less tolerant of bullshit from Druids than I am from other folk, in much the same way that I’m much more tolerant of forced rhymes and dodgy scanning from people who do not claim the title of poet.


Jay Ramsay

I first encountered Jay Ramsay some years ago. I was sent a review copy of ‘Soul of the Earth’, an anthology of eco-spiritual poetry that he’d edited. It being a beautiful collection, he remained in my awareness. A chance meeting last summer allowed me a small fan-girl moment and I’ve had the pleasure of reading more of his poetry since then. Jay’s website is http://www.jayramsay.co.uk/ and he has a youtube channel, http://www.youtube.com/user/jayramsaypoet which I really recommend checking out.

Jay very kindly agreed to let me share on one of his poems. So, here we go…

SACRED LAND
Everywhere we breathe
everywhere we stand
is sacred land,
is sacred land.

Everything we touch
everything we know
is in our heart
and it can show…

on a journey that has no end
till our eyes are open again
and the Earth is our friend.

Do you see what is reaching the sky
in flames and sparks as they die
where the stars shine on by ?

Can you see where rivers and roads
carry our souls as they float
and the land is what it knows ?

Sunset and sunrise,
a thousand years go by—
and still we’re learning how to dance
and still we’re learning how to cry

Full moon and star rise
alive in its tides…
and still we’re learning how to love
and still we’re learning how to die

This land is our land
this land is sacred land
this land is our land
this land is written in the palms of our hands.

And we are the ancestors
and the People of Light,
and we are the ancestors
and the People of Light.

Dec 10th 2011
lyric originally commissioned for ARC by Jay Ramsay


The joys of bad poetry

Good poetry is not easily written, taking skill, discipline, lots of practice and so forth. Bad poetry on the other hand, is available to all of us. We might be naturally bad, or we might hone it deliberately. Bad poetry has the potential for being really funny, especially in a context where the whole point of the exercise is having a giggle. To this end, I am going forth and perpetrating workshops in how to right atrocious poetry, with a view to having a bit of a slam afterwards, and a lot of laughter.

I’ve long been interested in facilitating creativity. One of the biggest blocks to being creative is disbelief. People are often so convinced that they’re going to be rubbish, that they won’t even try. They are going to be rubbish. We all start out rubbish, and no one gets to be good at anything, much less brilliant, without going through the being useless at it stage first. If no one shouldered their innate inability and tried to do things anyway, very little would happen. However, being crap is a demoralising business. Airing your ineptitude publically is intimidating, and that too is a barrier to learning and progressing. So, the aim of doing a bad poetry workshop is in part to give permission to be useless. Here is a space in which, the more awful you are, the better. You cannot possibly fail. All that remains is exactly how awfully funny your dreadful poetry turns out to be.

There’s safety in comedy. When the aim is to make people laugh at you, then whatever it takes you there is going to do it. I’m confident enough that I can give enough pointers that everyone involved has a shot at eliciting a giggle or two.

By going through and picking out lots of different ways to deliberately make poetry awful, we’ll also be doing a thing. Anyone who comes along will at least end up with plenty of features to avoid, which also gives them a better shot at writing some good poetry, if they get the urge. It’s not easy teaching people how to be good poets, but by teaching how to be dreadful, I can at the same time teach how not to be dreadful.

The first airing of my Bad Poetry workshop will be at Steampunk Doncaster next Sunday (16th June). It’s something I’m very happy to roll out other places, too. Playful, inclusive, entertaining, participatory, I think bad poetry workshops and bad poetry slams have a great deal of potential. If you fancy a bit of this kind of silliness at an event, do let me know. If I can get to you and fit it all in, then I will.


Bard of Exeter

The City of Exeter Calls for a New Bard

Sunday 15 January, The Bike Shed, Fore Street,  Exeter , 7pm, Entry £3.00

Jackie Juno and Clive Pig, outgoing joint holders of the title “Bard of Exeter” (or, more formally- the Bardic Chair of Caer Wyse) will be hosting the ultimate bardic competition to find their successor.

Based on records dating back at least two hundred years,Exeteris one of approximately 30 ancient locations that have the right to elect their own Bard or “Bardic Chair” each year. The Bard of Exeter by tradition holds the post for a year and a day, before inviting challengers to succeed her/him in turn.

The call is out for contenders to compete for the chair, robes and position in a head to head competition taking place at Exeter’s Bike Shed venue from 7pm.  Spectators are encouraged to come and support the challengers and will be given the opportunity to vote for the winner.

 

As outgoing Bards- Clive and Jackie will be hosting the competition, along with founder and Grand Bard- Mark Lindsey Earley. Mark will be handing over the role of Grand Bard, traditionally a seven year post which carries the responsibility of maintaining the continuity of the bardic chair as it passes to different candidates each year. Mark will take on the ceremonial role of Patron.

 

Clive and Jackie made bardic history last year when they both tied in the competition, and having worked successfully together in the past posed the idea of a joint Bardship. This met with the approval of the outgoing and Grand Bard, and the gathered assembly and so Exeter had a year of having two bards for the price of one!

 

Jackie says, “After an eventful year as co-Bard I look forward to hosting the competition to find Exeter’s new Bard. Last year the standard of performance was exceptionally high and made for a fascinating and hugely entertaining night out – I can only suspect this year will be the same!”

 

Entrants need to prepare a two-hundred word manifesto, stating how they intend to use the role for the tradition, the city and local poetry/arts. They will also be invited to perform an original self-penned poem or song, within a seven-minute slot. To register, contact Jackie on 01626 835802 or by email at jackiejuno@yahoo.co.uk

 

THE END

 

For more information on the wider Bardic Movement and the Bardic Chair and Gorsedd  of Caer Wyse: marklindseyearley@yahoo.co.uk

 

For more information about Clive Pig please visit his websitewww.clivepig.co.uk

 

 

 

 

I first encountered the bardic chair stuff through Kevan Manwaring’s Book of the Bardic chair – highly recommended reading for anyone with the urge to set one up. I believe there are a few dotted around the UK, and I for one would love to see more.

 

I’m very happy to carry this kind of news, so if you have something to share, do get in touch. There’s usually a day each week when I don’t manage to find inspiration for a blog, so, there’s always room and I like to help spread the word about good things, where I can.