Friday, 26 October 2007

Satsumas to a Mini Munch and U A Fanthorpe's Ghosts

So Halloween approaches and this week small children in various costumes ranging from the half hearted Harry Potter, the under bandaged Mummy and the ghoul mask purchased from Tesco will be knocking on my door. There are a number of children on the estate who have firmly embraced the American cultural imperialism of Halloween. The Pentecostals a few doors up turn children away with a short lecture on the perils of Satanism which seems to be effective. I of course look at their little shining glow in the dark faces and give them stuff.

Last year their little faces became less than shiny when I placed fruit into their outstretched palms. I felt virtuous; I had saved their teeth from a fate worse than decay and contributed to their five portions a day. Jamie Oliver eat your reduced fat heart out. I thought this was a win:win situation all round, whilst a little uncomfortable with the extortion racket of trick or treating I had put a positive spin on it. Threaten to throw eggs at my door small Frankenstein and I will come at you with a wholesome Satsuma. Last year one small child did pull up her Scream mask and ask if I had any sweets or money instead, the other children in the party hovered expectantly. I stood my ground clutching my bowl of oranges before this mini Munch and no eggs flew. I was rather proud of myself; trust me they are a tough lot round my way and the good Christiam evangelicals up the road who only sort to save the childrens immortal souls had their door egged!The local enfants terribles are happy to run the risk of a bit of divine retribution. Suffer the little children in their mind encompassed being given sweets whilst dressed as the anti-Christ. Satsuma offerings to the dark powers on All Hallows Eve may not have been their idea of a suitable propitiation but it works for me.

Of course I don’t believe in ghosts or things that go bump in the night (except my old fridge) but I think I saw one once but that’s another blog post. The sort of ghosts I do believe in, however, are some that U.A. Fanthorpe writes about in her poem Seven Types of Shadow

Saturday, 20 October 2007

The Act of Making, George Szirtes and the Muse in ordinary shoes

The poet George Szirtes asked a question on his blog (see link on right) and on Facebook 'What is it like writing a poem?'. He also provides a link to Andrew Shield's blog as well to help stir up the discussion. The piddling box on Facebook allows for brevity and pith but not expansion so below is my attempt at some sort of answer. I like a good bit of blogger dialogue it makes me remember someone is out there reading all this stuff!

The Act of Making

I sometimes have cause to work with children who have an autistic spectrum condition (significantly it is no longer regarded as correct to refer to it as a ‘disorder’). This condition can take many forms and express itself in many ways. A couple of years ago I came across this definition of autism.

Autism can be seen as a disturbance in personal psychology in which the conventional use of language, reaction to stimuli, interpretation of the world, and the formation of relationships between events are established sometimes out of temporal sequence, in extraordinary ways and follow unusual patterns.

It seemed to sum up for me the state I enter when I am writing a poem.
George Szirtes refers to Don Paterson writing about the pre-language state but I think there is also a hyper state of language when the conventionalities embedded in our synaptic pathways from our first encounters with sound and the meanings we give and are given to those sounds are momentarily discarded and new pathways taken within the brain.

Research as to how the brain of a person who has an autistic condition responds to words has been undertaken. It shows that very different areas of their brain are fired up when they are exposed to verbal stimuli. They approach words and language differently, often in a more deeply personalised and concrete way. This would explain why idioms are a nightmare for them to deal with frogs in throats, raining cats and dogs, pull up your socks can lead to problems and puzzled expressions. The concept of irony, metaphor and simile has to be taught to them. When I say ‘You have ants in your pants today I mean you are wriggling about as if you had them in your pants and I am not saying you have real ants in your pants.’

Such problems with language are not a function of intelligence or creativity. It is nonsense to have this view of autism as a condition in which people cannot be creative or express emotion. I have worked on using metaphors, similes and poetry with some children with this condition and never cease to be amazed at their ability to express themselves brilliantly in language.
‘He was as prickly as a row of ones’ ‘The day was as grey and thin as my sister in her faded pyjamas.’ ‘The clouds were like liquidised bone’
‘She cried like she was trying to wash it all away’ ‘He smelt as if he were trying not to smell of anything’.

The above are just a handful of examples from children with this condition, examples I wish I could steal for my own work!

I think when I write at my best ( everything is relative Mr Einstein ) I funnel my mind into a state of autistic focus in which that description of autism above holds sway. Things connect in a different and unconventional way and I interpret the world both the inner and outer in other ways. However to that experience, unlike those who have an autistic condition, I can bring other experiences; social skills inherent in communication and means of expression in language, which is I suppose where the craft of writing and the re-drafting experience come into action. I have to say that on a number of occasions the energy and that sense of travelling to ‘another place’ (I am loathe to use the word heightened as this has implications of superiority rather than difference) become lost in that re-writing and editing process. I suppose the best writing attempts to keep this journey but ensures it isn’t a self indulgent one.

So to summarise when I write I think I become focused to almost a quasi autistic state when temporality, conventions of language and connections become unconventional. I even become almost over sensitised to the point where loud sounds, particularly sudden ones becomes painful (as is the case with many autistic people). At home I even have certain obsessions or routines like the need for a mug of tea and certain things around me. The world around me can become so fluid that I have taken a couple of heartbeats to actually recall where the hell I am and in the case of fiction once, who the hell I am, when I stop writing. This of course is only peculiar to me and may make me sound mad but then I think writing is a disciplined form of madness. I am in all other respects quite sane ( but I would say that wouldn’t I ) but when things or ideas have been whirring in my head for a certain length of time the only relief for me is to choose this small private so called psychological disturbance. This ability to choose and continue to choose is maybe one explanation as to why some writers and poets have experienced the distress of no longer being able to come back from the journey or disappear into a bottle to ease the crossing of some undefined boundary.

All the above may sound a touch over the top but I tried to address the question asked as honestly as I could. The act of making is for me essentially the act of becoming.The Muse may not shuffle in like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (a terrible cliche portrayal of just one very particular rare kind of autism) but he or she (lets not be gender ridden here) does have a kind of disjointed awkwardness as if they are not quite comfortable in their everyday ordinary shoes.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Emperor Ming, Pot Plants, Cromwell and Beautiful People

So the liberal emperor Ming (can the liberal democrats have emperors?) has packed up his pot plant, put his desk tidy and framed photos into a small cardboard box and moved out of his office. Was he too old and doddery to lead a political party or a victim of rampant ageism? Who knows, perhaps it isn’t age, it’s a question of being photogenic. Robert Retford is older than Ming I believe but I think he might not have been pushed out so quickly as the camera loves him. Gordon Brown is not exactly the stuff that the camera dreams of but then he did slip in on baby faced Blair’s coat tails. Cameron, a good looking boy, looks at least half way decent through a lens and no doubt this was a factor in his choice. Is it really about age, I tend to think it’s about how those that choose think the shallow voting public will see their chosen one. I am sure given the choice between a gorgeous looking articulate fascist who is at ease in front of the camera and an old crone of a liberal who can’t seem to get the hang of being media friendly there may be some who would be swayed purely by the media package they are presented with. How can you run a country if you are really ugly and are not at ease with Jeremy Paxman? Are only the beautiful fit to govern? In the past of course our leaders could get away with not looking the bees knees as there was no television or photographs. Disraeli, Gladstone, Canning were less that gorgeous but they played the wise old sage card really well then better than MacMillan or Alex Douglas Hume (now there was a man who’s screaming skull looks certainly put off the voter)

I have a small problem with only the young ( under 50’s) being thought capable of governing but I have the greater problem with the concept of only the beautiful. This may of course be based on the fact that I am not photogenic; I hate being photographed and know that should my photograph be placed on a book the sales would probably dip. I am told this is a woman’s issue. Men do not have this as an issue however I note that many male writers and poets have photographs of their younger selves on their book covers. Personal vanity or a certain belief that how you look may lose you punters, just as in politics, seems to quite pervasive. Would I ignore a book simply because the author is old and ugly? Being perverse I might actually buy a book because the writer has a long track record and shed loads of life experience and their face on the dust jacket looks suitably raddled by a life lived. I know of course that the use of that word ‘ugly’ alone is very un PC. People have their own kind of beauty, both physical and spiritual, no one is ugly everyone is beautiful, literature and politics is too important to take account of such facile and superficial things. Did I see pigs flying past my window as I was typing just then? I note that publishers and the market often refer to a new young writer but not a new beautiful/handsome writer but now and then you have a sense that they are implying the latter comes with the former.
I watched a new reality show the other night it was to choose classical musicians for a high profile recording and media contract. Those that played well but as one judge said weren’t easy on the eye seemed to be having an uphill struggle to be in the running. Character was useful but the violinist with long dark hair and classical good looks got the benefit of the doubt whereas the more acne ridden ones got the boot. It perhaps was ever thus but with quick access to TV and images, who you are and what you are gets packaged and presented in terms of how you look. Byron of course could sell a good media package but the older Wordsworth and probably Tennyson would have been urged to keep their photo off their latest collection these days or at least have a very small one managed by photoshop. I urge myself to think that age and looks is totally immaterial in the world of literature, people who buy books and poetry collections don’t give a damn about such things. I urge myself but I keep catching the tail of that flying pig in the corner of my eye.

I come from the fens where Cromwell roamed the fields as a boy poking things with a big stick. He famously ordered an artist to paint him warts and all…no photoshop for him. Here was a politician who was at pains to present himself as he was. No doubt if he were around now his media advisers might be advising discreet wart removal at the very least but more probably there would be dark rumblings within the Puritan Party and before you could say ‘No camera close ups at the party conference’ Oliver would be packing his pot plant.

I post above the picture of a Brazilian man who won 'The World's Most Beautiful Man Contest'. Now be honest this blogger, if he turned up on my doorstep as a local politician would I be more inclined to give him the time to explain his policies? If he were an unknown poet would I be just a tad more open to hearing him read at a local venue? Gentlemen and ladies who prefer blondes you will have to image whatever rocks your boat to answer that question!

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Broken Things, Fairy lights and Lavinia in the Arctic

Bit of a tiring few days flying around on the magical mystery poetry/literature tour bus in East Anglia. Delivering poetry in two village halls with friends, attending launch of a new collection of short stories in Norwich. Broken Things the collection by Padrika Tarrant deserves to be read, it is writing that is staggeringly authentic, beautiful and at the same time unnerving. This is not a flog blog moment, dear reader, just me pointing you towards a wonderfully different read. It was Cambridge last night for the launch of a series of poetry readings in Michaelhouse kicked off by Tobias Hill and Helen Mort.

I was working on the door at this last event, trying to decide whether asking someone if they were a discount ie OAP could be slightly risky but then decided that if they should look dejected at actually being thought to be over 60 I could comment that I thought they might be a mature student which would also entitle them to a discount but I think they saw through this. I did manage to glance up and say to a couple entering that I really liked their necklaces as they were really glitzy. They turned out to be the Mayor and her companion who had been invited to attend the launch event. I stood by my initial comment that the mayoral jewellery had a wonderful Las Vegas glitz about it but with a slight understated British twist. They took it in good part, or appeared to just to get by the mad woman on the door.

I have always been a bit of a magpie regarding shiny baubles and if left to my own bad taste devices I could festoon myself with shiny objects and being a tall woman could look like a gaudy Christmas tree, probably a Scots Pine. The Boo and I have always felt that Christmas is an occasion for festive over ornamentation, wind up dancing turkeys and singing snowmen on illuminated plinths. Once my new set of lights were put up in my front window three years ago I decided that I liked them so much I would keep them up there. This may account for any bad luck that has befallen me since as my mother would rumble ominously about any seasonal festoon left up after twelfth night. In my defence I would add that it is a mere net of lights that can pulse, chase, flash or simply twinkle and not a full extravaganza of Santa Claus and reindeer that might look a little out of place in June.

I am a sucker for a fairy light, I have them draped in large vases, round banisters and entwined in willow sticks. It may be that single-handedly I can cause a surge in the national power grid when I switch them all on. I may be ecologically unsound in finding solace in small lights. Candles may be more ethnic but are, given my accident prone nature, more dangerous. I have eco-friendly light-bulbs all round the house and then I have the fairy lights; I live in a house of light paradox. They may be twee, they may be passé, they may be an interior decorator’s nightmare but they make me happy, especially when the nights start to grow darker. I am sure ever since man discovered how to make fire, not just heat but light has been embedded deep in our evolutionary psyche as a means of warding off the dark, the forces that sit out there in the blackness and night and wait to pounce. From the night light in the child’s room to people with SAD syndrome staring into light boxes there are so many instances of light being both protector and endower.

There is a downside to this quest for the light however as I have noticed that true dark is a rare commodity, these days you have to travel miles to stand in the dark. When is the last time you stood in a place outside with no light pollution at all, just star and moon light? Answers on a postcard , naming the best experience of the dark to this blog ( no sexual encounters on blankets or off blankets in woods, beaches or caves will be allowed). Moon and starlight have suffered from an over romanticised press of course but we may be rapidly forgetting what others in the past knew of the dark. If they knew what it was like to stand or walk in the night, relying only on the eye to grow accustomed to the dark and shadows, they would also experience the value and the particular quality only the light of a full moon and the stars can give. Lavinia Greenlaw in her poem Blue Field tries to evoke her particular experience of light in the dark whilst in the Arctic snowfields.

Will our urban eyes gradually evolve so that we can no longer adjust to the dark, will we grow to be creatures only of the switch, bulb and fluorescent tube? Who knows, meanwhile I switch off my ceiling lights and navigate round my house some nights by fairy light, a small pretence at moving in starlight.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Heated Words on Home and Louis Macneice

King’s Lynn Poetry Festival was, as usual, great fun and full of good poems and interesting poets. The reading I was involved in seemed to go very well, I tend to judge by a quick head count of those nodding off, the laughs at the funnier parts and the volume of Mmmmm at the serious parts. The invisible swingometer of the poetry audience would appeared to have swung our way.

The final discussion about Auden and MacNeice on the Sunday afternoon was interesting, not least for the small tornado that suddenly sprang up to stir up the after-lunch unruffled waters. In the green corner Irish poet Matthew Sweeney intense and vocal declaring MacNeice a truely, madly deeply Irish Poet and not just by virtue of the location of his birth but by his immersion in Irish culture and poetry. In the blue corner the poet Anthony Thwaite who shared an office and many a drink with this same poet over a number of years when they both worked for the BBC. He declared that apart from enjoyable holidays in Ireland MacNeice told him that he undoubtedly saw himself as English. Both had an arm of the dead poet and were keen to pull him into their corner. I think the best comment was by another panellist who simply said that when MacNeice wrote letters once from Europe he said he just wished he was home and no-one but the poet really knows what he meant by that. Yet at the same time we all know what he meant, most of us have a sense of home, albeit the space within four walls we create for ourselves to feel comfortable in, physically and emotionally.

Birth place, family, given culture, embraced culture, the whole rag bag of life experiences and our history feed into that word home. The absence of feeling at home haunts many who find themselves permanently separated from home. Norwich I know has declared itself ‘A City of Refuge’for persecuted writers and their families. Can a refuge ever be seen as home is it by its very nature, transient, a place between, a place to catch your breath.

Many years ago I worked as a volunteer at the very first Woman’s Refuge in London set up by Erin Pizzey. It was a a refuge in the full sense of that word and yet to those women and those children it was never home, it was an address where they could feel safe for a while.

Home is surely more than just a place of safety, vital though that is. A child of parents who constantly refer to another place as their home may learn to assimilate the idea of being in two places at once, inside two different skins, two countries, at once. I don’t know how a sense of being home is achieved, there is no recipe; take one house in a familiar or preferred landscape, fill with those you love and/or feel comfortable with, surround with others who also follow there own home recipe and who allow you to follow yours in peace and active goodwill. No that’s Utopia, I have met people who have felt that home was despite rather than because of all those ingredients. There are those who have lived in one place or in one family all their lives and never feel at home there, and there are those that can find true home in a sudden epiphany of place or people. Home can be a matter of geography, home can be people, home can be that which is simply familiar. Does it matter where a writer or a poet finds home? Do writers create their home and their refuge in the words? Is it always easier to know when you are not home than when you are? Is home sometimes a fantasy concept, the equivalent of the cottage with roses round the door? Adam and Eve probably argued with the angel with the fiery sword that they needed to go home because only paradise would tick that box? Should we go all pop psychology and not only love ourselves and embrace the moment but also love and embrace where we are and just agree to call it home? I doubt we can ever do that.

When MacNeice wrote Carrickfergus did he see Ireland as home or just a place he once lived in. Perhaps it was just one of many places in his head he called home, perhaps we all have more than one home and if we are very lucky always some place of refuge.