Sunday 5 August 2012

The Pantheon and Poets as Synchronised Swimmers


I am wondering why seeing two grown men so distraught at only coming second in the double skulls is sticking in my head so much. Super Saturday brought so many scenes of great triumph for the GB team; people over coming, striving, working so hard to get the ultimate reward, a gold medal. Whilst I loved all those winning moments for the GB team I still can’t quite shake those shots of the exhausted pair as the floated on the water and just cried in front of the packed stands and afterwards in a brief painful interview with the inconsolable Zac Purchase he said,

     “The emotional side is always difficult. When you put everything in and you lose, there is no hiding place. …We’ll spend days, weeks, months, the rest of our lives, trying to work out if we could have done more.” 

    I am of course always drawn to the plucky loser, gracious in defeat, it is almost part of our cultural DNA. The maternal in me wants to hug them and say those words we say to our children when they don’t pass their driving test, get relegated to the back row of the ballet class, don’t get picked for the team, don’t get the grades they need, get pipped at the post for their dream job, “Well you did your best, that’s all you can do”. The taking part, the endeavour is what’s important not the winning, the need to make someone feel better about the situation and themselves drives us to believe that. Top athletes however want to be the best they can be but ‘the best’, measuring yourself against others’ performances, is what it is all about and the best they can be is to be first. The nature of the winning professional beast is that you do have to judge yourself and be judged by others and be found short of the mark. 

     Innate talent is a given but everything else is up for grabs. Usain Bolt may be too tall to be a sprinter but be blessed with super fast twitch muscle fibre by virtue of his genetics but that is all; the rest has to be hard work. There may be hundreds out there who could have exactly the same physical and genetic requisites but circumstance and personality and opportunity is what will make all the difference…and the need to win must be up there with the other circumstances and attributes.

     I sometimes work with children with such low self esteem that winning is never a valid option the whole of their being denies them that vision. They can rip up a picture they have drawn if you tell them how good it is. To be good at something, you first have to be comfortable with the concept of being good at something. The GB Team in general has broken through to that place where winning is not just a lovely perk of taking part, you have the right to want it and work to achieve it and be devastated if you don't achieve your goal. 

     Perhaps devastation is the price you have to pay for that level of belief. This same belief  fuels and drives athletes to train in bleak wet weather, spend hours pounding the roads or in the gym or on the track, go to bed when others are going out on the town to enjoy themselves and makes them grasp the nettle of being lonely and separated from those you love. A personal best is not the consolation prize at the top levels and even lower down it is still the wooden spoon because if you have given so much, your all, you have to believe that you are doing it so you can win and be the best. Keeping things inproportion is exactly what they are doing when they weep at not winning. Good sportsmanship does not preclude being angry at yourself for falling short of what  you dared to strive for.

     The relationship between performance and sponsorship and monetary rewards is a huge part of the equation now. Mo Farah and his family will have a better life financially because he has won Olympic gold. Jess Ennis will always have a job when her heptathlon win is just an old clip they run on TV but part of the qualities that will sustain them in their post Olympic careers is that they have been the best in the world and that being the best in any other walk of life you choose to enter is an option.

     In some countries, where young people want to have the sort of life they see top athletes having, it is acceptable to want to emulate sporting heroes and become famous because their fame is legitimised through hard work. The successful sportsman or woman have always inspired young people but in this media savy age the opportunity to be seen to do what you do best, winning, has been increased a million fold. Someone I met recently told me about their experience of watching the Kenyan athletes in the last Olympics in a Kenyan township in a school hall where satellite TV had been installed. He spoke about how nearly every child there saw a real possibility for themselves and not just a spectacle.  

     Others here who gain celebrity status through fly on the wall TV or other routes are regarded as passing fluff and tomorrow’s chip paper. Sporting heroes with their face on bill boards or advertising banks or trainers have achieved their status through ‘righteous endeavour’, they have literally sweated for it over years, their fame has longevity and cultural kudos. 
     I wonder if our excitement at having a plethora of sporting heroes to embrace now is not just about them being an inspiration for future generations to get off the sofa, switch off the computer and participate in some sport. All cultures need their mythic heroes and if they don’t have them they create them out of what the media serves up to them . Perhaps deep down we are rejoicing that we may now have, not just one or two heroes but a whole pantheon of them…there they are on top of the heap, standing on Mount Olympus smiling down at us, affirming that it is not just ok to win, it is what we have a right to want to achieve. These are not the false gods of quick media celebrity but are what our deeply engrained Protestant work ethic tells us is virtuous and so we can relax and enjoy.

     It isn’t just the younger generation that needs to be inspired, I know I need to feel it is ok to get teary when a GB sportsman or woman wins and when Zac Purchase spoke he spoke for something else in us, that regret at not winning is what you have to deal with in life because telling yourself you did the best you could is never truely consoling or quite enough. Regrets are ok so long as they don't become so deep we become dysfunctional.; hence the note of irony in this blog's name.

Writing as a competitive sport is not yet eligible for the Olympics.The various glittering poetry prizes and book awards create a thin veneer of competition about what is the best but you can’t judge poetry or prose with a stopwatch. There aren’t points for level of difficulty as in gymnastics or diving, no one would say that a sonnet attempted quite well beats a free verse poem that is merely very good. There may be marks for technical merit but artistic interpretation and creativity gets a huge percentage of the marks. Having come across the marking system for synchronised swimming I think it may be a system that could be used for poetry and book awards but just invert the percentage of the marks allowed for technical prowess and artistry. Take a look, I think a team of synchronised swimmers could be roughly akin to a batch of poetry books or novels and for some books you don’t need waterproof makeup, neon swimming caps and nose clips to get you through.

Friday 18 May 2012

Mini Opera


Here is the entry for the mini opera competition run by the ENO based on a story 'The Dream Sweeper' by Neil Gaiman.

Setting, a huge tip consisting of mountains of rags. Ghost like people sort through the rags scavenging for those that can be sold. A man, the rag man, swaggers towards them.

Rag Man:  Come on over ladies and gents,
                   let’s be having you, penny for old mares,
                   a quid for something new.
                   Found a sailor drowning in a whisky sea,
                   a man trying to open doors with a melting key?
                   A check-out girl, glued to her swivel chair,
                   she spits teeth onto the belt
                   watched by a queue that doesn’t care?
                   How about a soldier watching his mates die,
                   he screams to warn them over and over
                   but they never hear his cry?
                   A timid teenage girl running
                   through her school, suddenly she’s naked,
                   I’d give a fiver for that but I won’t take any tat.
                   Top price paid for terror, misery and pain
                   mare stuff I can recycle again and again and again
Scavengers: We can sell you all their nights,
                     but there are no dreams for us,
                     only theirs to sift and to sort;
                     bad to worse, worse to this ,
                     the last resort for us.
                    We are the dreamless,
                     the scavengers, the lost.
                     and no one gives a toss.
Rag man:    Listen I’m no bleeding heart,
                     I’m only here to play a part, 
                     my job is just to buy the mares.
                    Who cares about you...No one cares
Sweeper enters with his broom pushing a hand cart piled high with rags. The scavengers all gather around his cart examining its contents. He sits down, exhausted.

Sweeper:   The nights these days seem longer,
                  each pavement and every gutter
                  clogged with all their dreams,
                  the clutter of designer histories,
                  words they mutter into pillows,
                  and into the ear of the dark
                  that listens at their window.
                  Each dream roars in my head
                  and this old dragon breathes
                  a fire into the shadows,
                  into the fabric of the night
                  then it slashes, tears and rips
                  and I sweep it up, sweep it up
                  and bring it to the tip

Scavengers:   We need new fears, new tears,
                        bring us something new.
                        These old sorrows, bad tomorrows,
                        are two a penny now.
Sweeper’s Lover:  Leave him be, leave him be
                               can’t you see he’s had enough
                               night after night he sweeps alone
                               sweeps the dark for us.
                               Let him have some peace 
                               all their ragged dreams
                               have worn him to the bone.

The Sweeper: Their dreams have worn me down.
                        I am the man they don’t quite see,
                        a roll-up glow in a back alley.
                        I am that maybe, an almost sound
                        they believe they don’t quite hear,
                        the constant foot- fall behind them
                        that suddenly disappears.
                        That old moon is this white silk,
                        a soft noose around my neck,
                        those stars a million holes pecked
                        in black velvet by dark crows.

Scavengers: We need new fears, new tears,
                      bring us something new.
                      These old sorrows, bad tomorrows,
                      are two a penny now.
Sweeper’s Lover: Remember Sweeper what I find as well
                               those scraps of hope I never sell;
                               odds and ends of wonder, happiness,
                               bright threads of memories.
                                                                            We sort and sell the torn dreams
                                                                            but there are always those I keep
                                                                            that makes it worth the sweep.
    Scavengers: A girl whose wedding dress is slashed and cut.
                         An opera singer whose mouth is sewn tight shut.
                         A mother who sees her dead son in the house.
                         A man being chased by a giant Minnie Mouse

Rag Man:     A penny for that giant Mouse,
                      tenner for the mother’s haunted house.

Sweeper’s Lover: Hold her rag to the moonlight,
                              see the tight warp and weft
                              the close weave of her longing
                              is all that she has left,
                              the silky slivers of her heart
                              that shimmer in the dark.
The Sweeper:  I bring it all here, the scraps
                         of teeth bared, bolting mares,
                         the ragged dreams of life,
                         their Kevlar loves, their flimsy cares,
                         I bring them home to you.
                         A panic at losing something,
                         the wanting that comes first,
                         all their best dreams and worst,
                         I bring them home to you,

Sweeper’s Lover: I have made a quilt to keep you warm
                              out of dreams that may be torn
                              but are flecked with love and hope
                              stitches of better tomorrows.
                              I know the strands of cold 
                              that wrap around your soul,
                              those frayed chill fingers
                             of lost dreams that linger
                             on your face and in the air you breathe.
Rag Man: A hundred, no a thousand for that quilt.
                  It’s wasted on the sweeper; 
                  he’s the one who built
                  this wasteland, rag, by rag, by rag

 Scavengers: He swept and swept,
                       and built this wasteland,
                       rag, by rag, by rag

 Sweeper: I swept and swept,
                  and built this wasteland,
                  rag, by rag, by rag
Sweeper’s Lover:  No, you swept for us, for me,
                                we forgot how to dream and
                                we built our own wasteland
                                here, rag, by rag, by rag

Sunday 22 April 2012

Solipsism Syndrome and Other Horizons in Poetry.

There are moments when you realise, as you sit battling with the new Blogger layout and system, that blogging is an act of total and utter solipsism. Nothing I say within the limits of this blog feels real to me as an experience for anyone else, not that I don't think you are real dear reader or that your experiences are not valid. However if there is no interactive experience other than the self, the very early stages of solipsism syndrome may kick in now and then which may be displayed in mumblings to the self and a slight sense that it may be a hop, skip and a jump from here to starting to stack newspapers in the hallway and appearing on Life of Grime. Solipsism is a philosophical position that nothing outside one's own mind can be known to exist, or, sometimes, the position that nothing outside one's own mind does exist. Solipsism syndrome is, by extension, the overwhelming feeling that nothing is real, that all is a dream. Sufferers become lonely and detached from the world and eventually become completely indifferent.Luckily I went through all that 'Am I the figment of someone else's imagination' angst when I was thirteen and decided back then that if I was whoever was imagining me had a really poor imagination if all he could come up with was what I was living.Watching the Matrix also confirmed to me that if Hollywood could put Keanu Reeves in a film that purported to show our whole lives as being the construct of some giant computer then the reality option was to be preferred. However I became interested in solipsism syndrome whilst researching something for a SF short story. Psychological considerations are important in the design of enclosed spaces such as artificial habitats in deep space or under water, with aolipaiam syndrome being specifically identified as a factor by scientists and engineers.Several strategies to attempt to avoid occurrence of solipsism syndrome in artificial environments are discussed in NASA's "Space Settlements: A Design Study" which proposes designs for space colonization: 1. A large geometry, in which people can see far beyond the "theatre stage" of the vicinity to a view which is overwhelmingly visible. 2. Something must exist beyond each human's manipulation because people learn to cope with reality when reality is different from their imagination. If the reality is the same as the imagination, there is no escape from falling into solipsism. In extraterrestrial communities, everything can be virtually controlled. In fact, technically nothing should go beyond human control even though this is psychologically bad; however, some amount of "unpredictability" can be built in within a controllable range. One way to achieve this is to generate artificial unpredictability by means of a table of random numbers. Another way is to allow animals and plants a degree of freedom and independence from human planning. Both types of unpredictability must have a high visibility to be effective. This high visibility is easier to achieve in a macrogeometry which allows longer lines of sight. 3.Something must exist which grows. Interactive processes generate new patterns which cannot be inferred from the information contained in the old state. This is not due to randomness but rather to different amplification by mutual causal loops. It is important for each person to feel able to contribute personally to something which grows, that the reality often goes in a direction different from expectation, and finally that what each person takes care of (a child, for example) may possess increased wisdom, and may grow into something beyond the individual in control. From this point of view, it is important personally to raise children, and to grow vegetables and trees with personal care, not by mechanical means. It is also desirable to see plants and animals grow, which is facilitated by a long line of sight. 4.It is important to have "something beyond the horizon" which gives the feeling that the world is larger than what is seen. All the above begs to become a found poem which I shall work on and of course I see metaphors for so much else in these points made in the study. There are so many people now that have no access to something beyond the horizon let alone a future space colony on Vega. Why am I talking about all this ? Because I have just had a poem published in Focus the magazine for writers published by The British Science Fiction Associations and it set me thinking in my embryonic solisistic way about horizons and boundaries. Science Fiction and Fantasy is a genre that I admire and love, when well written. It is a genre that offers up the opportunity to explore beyond what is now or possible and interrogates the imagination in complex ways. Fantasy and Sci Fi have to sometimes create not just a narrative but a whole world for that narrative to unfold in. There are no short cuts in a story, the 97 Bus to Peckham is something most people have a concept of but place it in an urban fantasy or Sci-Fi story and it becomes other; it has to be defined, it has to be described, its purpose and history created because in an urban fantasy this bus may not be just a bus. It may be a sentient being who manifests itself as a bus, it may be a thought bus created by the necessity to get to Peckham and that thought can move you through space and time, it could be a holographic bus created for nostalgic reasons in the 23rd century. Everything is up for grabs in fantasy and Sci Fi, even in hard scientific sci fi stories, as long as the writer remains internally consistant. Charles Christian in his article in Focus in which he addresses 'Why Poetry in a SF Magazine?'talks about the sort of prejudice that exists against poetry in Sci Fi and Fantasy genre but he suggests that if you call it magic realism then it becomes something far more acceptable. The rose by another name will indeed smell sweeter to some poetry readers. Whilst there are no boundaries about what a good poem can do, some readers can still occupy the border crossings demanding to see the poems paperwork, its passport and visa before it can be truely welcomed to Poetryania. Some poets, because they are beloved existing citizens of Poetryania can cross the border now and then into Sci Fi and Fantasy and still be welcomed back to their homeland, their brief excursion viewed with some minor interest or ignored as a brief but ill advised excursion. The best Sci- Fi and Fantasy( both Urban and otherwise)can tell us something about ourselves and our world now. At the moment I am reading China Mieville's Iron Council the last in his Bas Lag trilogy. In these books he creates a world and writes a story set during three different period in this world's history. The whole work is rich with metaphor about our world and the history of capitalism and empire , the nature of freedom and what makes us free beings despite our differences. Here is a world where characters can be giant cacti or sentenced criminals remade as hideous part human, part insect, part machine or a monstrous compilation of attributes, there is, by definition, an exploration of what is the defining qualities which make a sentient creature capable of moral judgement. What makes an individual capable of good, ill or both at the same time because in the end characters and their choices are what drive a story.The use of magic and strange steam technology may enrich that world but it is the why of things rather than the how that holds the real magic of looking at the commonplace with different eyes. Equally a poem that explores strange context, the nature of reality, what might be or not be,creates a whole new world, is only a stone's throw from the old so called Martian School of poetry which uses the strangeness of the everyday to underpin the poem. The late Edwin Morgan was of course one of the great poets who embraced the Sci Fi genre and he saw no reason why poets should not be as comfortable in the journey to the planets as in any walk in the countryside.He didn't believe in boundaries and to go back to the design specs for future human existence in space then there needs to be a sense of something beyond the horizon to make sense of it all. I would also like to point out that I have created paragraphs in this blog but the new system seems to deny all knowledge of this means of creating boundaries between thoughts.....walks away from the computer mumbling to self and tripping over a pile of newspapers.

Saturday 14 April 2012

Falling Tall Women, Pope and Body

This is a blog partly in response to a posting on the blog Poetry on the Brain by Helen Mort. This post looks at the relationship between the body, the mind and the poet. This response wanders off, of course, as I like to wander, annoying to those around me but strangely exhilarating to me as I find all sorts of things down the road less travelled; teapots, unread letters, marbles, a few of which are often my own.

I should perhaps start by saying that as part of my work in the past I have worked with those who have or have had acute Body Dysmorphia and on two occasions Gender Identity Disorder. I also know someone who, as a hospital social worker in the United States had to deal with two people experiencing so called Body Identity Integrity Disorder ( when a person feels a part of their body does not belong to them and is so alien that they want it amputated ).

These are of course very extreme positions on a ‘psychiatric continuum’ which we all to some extent inhabit, for instance how many women or men regard a part of their body as unsatisfactory when others can see no problem at all. How we perceive out body and also how we perceive our movement of it and the space it inhabits is extremely interesting and must be part of the human condition.

Many children with Dyspraxia I have worked with have huge difficulty knowing where their body is in space. If you ask them to lie on the floor and close their eyes many will clutch at the floor and they will open their eyes because without any visual feedback they feel as if they are falling in space. Ask them to describe that feeling and even very young children have told me not only are they falling (with all the inevitable anxiety this can bring with it) but they feel they are losing something else they can’t quite name. One boy once told me it felt like he had to open his eyes because if he didn’t he would disappear, which I can only presume is a loss of the sense of self.

The use of various techniques such as sensory circuits help such children build a greater sense of where they are in space and in relation to others and the effects on behaviour and mood are reported as enormously beneficial in many cases. This of course begs the question of how self-esteem and self-perception are integrated within the psyche which is a whole different ball game but nevertheless increasing an individual’s body awareness in space does seem to have a marked effect on self perception.

Those whose career and identity are intrinsically woven into their physicality; how they move in space , how they control their body to achieve various objectives or to experience a sort of endorphin rush find the loss of bodily function informs who they are, their own sense of self. Kinaesthetic memory has a huge impact on memory in general and if identity is seen as a constant chain of memory, each link has to be of some importance in creating and perceiving self. I am 6’ 4” tall and that has had a huge impact on how I perceive myself and how I am perceived by others which has to have a knock on effect on self perception.

Strangely at the moment I am attempting to write about being extremely tall. I actually see the world differently given my eye-line which means I see somethings others do not and vice-versa. I can see across a crowded room whereas my shorter friends can not; my body allows me to experience a crowded room as something other than a swathe of backs . Put me in a room full of people taller than myself, which has happened once or twice and I become quite disorientated and strangely disembodied. This is nowhere near the impact that a disability could have on who I am and how it effects my creative work. Someone in a wheelchair entering a room who has to look up to people to talk to them has to work harder at maintaining their self esteem as there is research that shows that having to talk to someone taller than yourself has an impact in how you perceive the nature of the dialogue and who has the power in the relationship. This may tie in with your example of the difference people showed in judging distance after being read different types of stories. A very assertive tall person can be seen as either a leader or a bully (dependent on context), whilst an assertive short person can be perceived as either exhibiting some kind of ‘Napoleon’ complex or being aggressive.

The late Ian Drury in later life said that his disability had a huge impact on his creative work if only in so far as he sort to fight against and nullify what others perceived as its impact. It would be interesting to know how many poets now and historically have disabilities, blindness, deafness, paralysis, deformity, and how is this bodily difference reflected in their work and is there a difference in those with a difference from birth and those who have acquired a difference.

I sometimes can’t help but think about those old tales of Native American Indians believing that if they allowed their image to be taken (photographed) they believed their soul would be taken from them. Perhaps they knew better than we do that when faced with the objective image of our own bodies, in order to process that information something more than the visual is involved, we have to integrate that with our self perception and this may cause a real schism in our sense of personal identity which you may see as the soul if you are religious. Who we are and who we perceive ourselves to be has always been a hot poetry topic and the shell we inhabit isn’t really a shell at all it is an integral part of who we are and how we inhabit physical space.

Alexander Pope, the eighteenth century poet and essayist (among many other things) struggled with ill health all his life. He had a kind of tuberculosis of the bone which led him to be only 4’6” tall and quite badly deformed. He was in constant pain yet his sharp satirical wit demonstrated his refusal to be pandered to because of his physical looks. But of course how far was his physical difference the source of something that drove him to be the poet he was. His Catholic faith precluded him, as brilliant as he was, from ever attending University or holding any public academic post and yet this hunch-backed little man was able to be one of the most prominent thinkers of his day. The drive to be listened to, to write, to be counted as one of the great minds of his day cannot be totally divorced from the fact of his body and the way that impacted on who he was.


There are those who to my person pay their court:
I cough like Horace, and, though lean, am short
Ammon's great son one shoulder had too high -
Such Ovid's nose - and 'Sir, you have an eye'.
Go on, obliging creatures, make me see
All that disgraced my betters met in me.
Say, for my comfort, languishing in bed,
'Just so immortal Maro held his head;'
And, when I die, be sure and let me know
Great Homer died three thousand years ago.
Why did I write? What sin to me unknown
Dipp'd me in ink? my parents', or my own?
As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame,
I lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came.
I left no calling for this idle trade,
No duty broke, no father disobeyed:
The Muse but served to ease some friend, not wife,
To help me through this long disease, my life.

Alexander Pope