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I was at a public rehearsal of Patchwork Opera’s Footstep a couple of nights ago. A multi-media group, of poets, songwriters and film makers, they had put together a story based in Carlisle (England), and which featured a poem by local writer Kelly Davis. A full performance scheduled for August 29th at Carlisle’s Old Fire Station.

In particular this caught my ear, because it was written in the Valanga form. I devised and named the form about ten years ago, whilst working towards an M.Litt at Glasgow University’s Crichton Campus.

The exercise wasn’t appreciated by my assessors, it must be said, but it served the purpose of allowing me to write a poem I wanted to write in a particular style. I had been looking at the pantoum form, and the way that lines repeat in a sort of ‘ripple’ down the length of the poem. That wasn’t quite what I was looking for. I wanted a repetition that would build, expand, like…I thought, an Avalanche! The poem was called Avalanche (originally, The Avalanche of Emotion…which was too much, and most of it wouldn’t need saying if the poem did its job!). I called the form Valanga, as a bit of a dig at the British (English? Establishment?) preference for Arts that aren’t home grown.

Kelly’s, to my way of thinking, successful use of the form, had resulted in her poem being taken for publication…but the editor had asked for some shortening…saying it was a bit ‘repetitive’. The editor, Kelly told me, was ‘forthright’: a good quality in an editor, especially if you are going to disagree with them!

The use of repetition is traditional in poetry (and elsewhere), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that that use must be for tradition’s sake. Repetition can be used in several ways (some of which, I’m sure I’m not yet aware of!). It can render a phrase, clause, or sentence (or even a single word for that matter) meaningless, comic even. It can add emphasis on each subsequent usage. It can fade like an echo, or like someone leaving, or crying in a wilderness. It can explode, like an avalanche, progressively filling our consciousness. It can test a form of words against a variety of background contexts that will give them meanings totally at variance with each other. It can make music, beat, and rhythm.

In poems like Louis Aragon’s Ballade de celui qui chants dans les supplices it can be heart-breakingly powerful, where the opening refrain becomes an assertion of human courage, endurance, hope and intention against the certainty of death:

 

“Et s’il etait a refaire

Je referais ce chemin….”

 

….Which I translate as:

 

‘And if it was to do again

I would do it the same…’

…which I know is not a word for word translation. You can find the poem, with a word for word translation in The Penguin Book of French Poetry 1820-1950, which I strongly recommend to anyone wanting to write poetry influenced by our European tradition.

A similar power, in a quite different context can be found in Josephine Dickinson’s lament for her late husband. From the collection Scarberry Hill (Rialto,2001), comes the profound and moving Instead of Time .

Again it is the opening lines that are repeated, this time with a slight variation to end the poem:

 

Do you not hear the sea?

Snow still falls on your grave

(I threw a red rose)

The wind still blows.

 

This stark quatrain of simple, single syllable words beats like a muffled drum, and I have testified before to feeling the hair stand up on my neck when I have recalled it to mind, let alone read it again. The first time I heard Josephine read it (she stood tall, slim, silent and motionless as a pillar of dark slate) not only did I listen in stillness and in silence, but without breathing for fear of breaking the spell; and that spell was woven to a large extent by the repetitions of these words.

At the other end of the scale, the repetition of a single word or phrase ad nauseam can reduce an audience to hysterical laughter.

Perhaps somewhere in the middle lies that tradition I mentioned, in the provision of choruses to both songs and poems. Choruses bring us back and send us round again, like a merry-go-round fun-fare ride, like a marching song. But it’s not only verse, lyrical or otherwise. I’ve even attempted a ‘chorus’ short story, though it didn’t quite work out that simply (Last Chorus in Burton on Trent, from Second Time Around, 2006). Repetition is a powerful tool of more general oratory. Can you remember Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock asking his members if they were ‘ready for power’, and by that repetition generating a storm of response that some commentators suggested he himself was not ready for?  And what about the Shakesperian repetition that undermines its own ostensible meaning in Mark Antony’s famous eulogy…Brutus is an honourable man…?

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAReaders of my blog, and members of the Facets of Fiction Writers Workshops, will probably have noticed me banging on about reading aloud.

Mostly I’m exhorting people to read their own work out loud, as part of the process of writing. Not just to gain listener response, though that’s useful, but also because passages that are difficult to articulate, that stick in your throat or lead you into the wrong tone of voice for what’s coming next, will probably be difficult to negotiate in silent reading too. Silent reading, to some extent, must be an exercise in imagined voices!

By reading aloud I don’t necessarily mean performing. Reading aloud might well be a performance, but the two terms, to my way of thinking, lie at opposite ends of a spectrum. At the performance end the actual words being read aloud will be of lesser importance than at the other – possibly of less importance to the listener, who may well have morphed into a viewer, than the visual and non-verbal audio stimuli that accompany them.

At the reading aloud end of the spectrum there is still a handful of techniques to be employed in the way the words are read: speed, volume, tone are three obvious ones, and of course, variations in these will influence how the words themselves are understood and responed to. When I read aloud there is much handwaving, shoulder heaving and facial contortion! When poet Josephine Dickinson reads aloud there is only the breathtaking purity of her voice.

All of which is a sort of preamble to suggesting that reading aloud has a lot to offer readers as well as writers. In particular I have been thinking of James Joyce [I’m contemplating running a series of reading/study session on Joyce later in the year – any takers????], who in the twenties and thirties, made a series of recordings, and particularly of his reading of the Anna Livia Plurabella section of Finnegan’s Wake. I found hearing Joyce read this particularly helpful in my own approach to what for most of us is a pretty daunting novel. I found a similar effect with poet John Berryman, whose work had seemed impenetrable to me until I heard him read it! – Literature ain’t only for the uber-clever among us ya know!

What I’m going to suggest however, is that hearing ourselves read aloud the work of authors we are silently reading can perform a similar function. The literary equivalent of ‘going a mile in someone’s shoes’, reading their work aloud can help not only with understanding what they meant, but also with getting a sense of what they may have have felt about their writing. More improtantly, it might also clarify , amplify perhaps, what we feel about their words.

I find James Joyce’s voice as thin and wiry, in those early recordings, as is his image in contemporaneous photographs, but it’s a voice I reckon I could catch if I practiced; perhaps to read a favourite passage, such as the last few paragraphs of his short story ‘The Dead’. Yet that would not be my preferred reading of it.

 

It is often pointed out that authors are not always the best, or even good readers of their own work. Are composers of music similarly disappointing, I wonder, when it comes to playing their own music? That authors do often read badly does not necessarily strip value from their readings, not to us as readers, nor to them as writers, but it does suggest that our own readings of their work might be as useful or even more useful, and dare I say it more enjoyable to us than readings in the original voice.

Giving voice to words that are not our own does not mean striving to replicate the voice of the original writer, but rather to create the voice that we think those written words evoke, or even demand. Just as a musician plays his or her interpretation of the written score, so we play ours of the written text, and this, even if only for us as individuals, is a worthwhile thing to do.

 

Mick North (Editorial geni behind Eden Arts’ New Writing Cumbria & Weekly Word website and e-letter) and us (BHDandMe) received the photo-journalism treatment this week – both in the classic poses of the local writer. That is, leaning against a pergola and sitting in front of a computer. And with a grin on faces for the former; not so for the latter. I tried to persuade photographer Jenny Woolgar that a smiling writer (unless it’s one of those sinister smiles you would get in a horror movie – no comments please about it BEING one of those sinister smiles you get in a horror movie ) is as much use as a chocolate fireguard, and I know about chocolate fireguards, metaphorically speaking, but for financial and legal reasons I am unable to go into the details of that at the present time.

There’s also the issue of Fire Cranes. Some of you will have been lucky enough by now to have seen copies of Mick’s new publication: The Fire Crane. Published with the aid of several sources of public money (otherwise known as us – what else are you gonna do with the VAT off heating fuel?) this features poems, interviews and visual arts from Cumbria (and elsewhere), and will, I hope, be the first of many. Produced in a newspaper style (except of course without the dodgy intrusions, distortions and damnations – if you’re going to do alliteration, go for three I always say – of the contemporary journalist), this is a nice print job with excellent content. It features Josephine Dickinson’s poetry which can’t be bad… no, believe me, it simply can’t be! It also has a story by Christine Howe, one of the Facets of Fiction fictioneers, and poetry by my good neighbour Mary Robinson, who led a very enjoyable day of study on Norman Nicholson recently at Rosley Village Hall near Carlisle. There are also poems by Martyn Halsall (who has read several times at the Carlisle LitCaff -at Merienda bar/cafe on Treasury Court, third Wednesday of the month – £3 entry, £2 if you concede, 7.30pm start). This is a Free publication (? – The writers and artists, presumably not getting paid, the printers – who drive, I suppose, expensive cars and take foreign holidays, being remunerated I imagine at full commercial rates. Anomalies are always instructive), so pick one up somewhere. Libraries will have them. Merienda’s will have them. Even I have some, for the moment! The artwork, beyond my competence to judge, is striking. Those good old Hunters in the Snow (Breugel – you knew that) are there, but so are some cracking images from Lionel Playford, and photographs by Ian Hill, Horatio Lawson and others. It is, truly, packed with visual and textual goodies!

The name intrigues. Myself, rich in ignorance, assumed it was some sort of mythical bird – and there must be a story in that somewhere – flash fictions on The Fire Crane, to BHD on brindleyhd@aol.com – we’ll put some in Weekly Word and I’ll donate a copy of my new collection of short stories, Talking To Owls (due out from Pewter Rose on 31st October), to the one I like best of those received within this October. I wasn’t the only one to make the mistake, and so at least two us spent a fruitless few minutes trying to make out the avian in the logo. The fire crane in question however, is a metal gizmo, of ancinet provenance, that swings out over a fire, and from which may be suspended a kettle, or cauldron, or very small victim. That’s why it looks like a gallows. It’s not a well known fact that Cowan Sheldon began as a manufacturer of Fire Cranes, nor that they were known to migrate from central Asia, annually, passing over Tibet, India, Arabia, the Mediterranean, Southern Europe and the Iberian Peninsular, and finally into the Western Seabord of the British Islets, where they gave the Romans a hand, or rather a beak, lifting the stones onto Hadrian’s Wall. Not a lot of people, as Michael Caine observed.

Other publications of interest this week include the Sentinel Literary Quarterly, for July-September, in which the Me half of BHDandMe has an essay on using detail in short fiction. There should also be, around November time, an issue of Sentinel Champions with the (small) prize winning story Sand in it, from BHD! On which note of rumour, this blog ends! Except to say that the photo at the top of the page, shows BHDandMe, not quite somnolent, in the light of candles, in the new Facets of Fiction writers’ room out here at Curthwaite!