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Yesterday I kicked off the lunchtime poetry reading at Maryport’s The Settlement, as part of a weekend celebrating the meeting there of Norman Nicholson and Percy Kelly in 1959.

I came home with the same question in my mind as had been there when I set off (and for a long time before!). That question is ‘what makes you – the writer – think it’s a poem?’

It’s not simply a matter of techniques, like rime, and rhythm, and alliteration, for all those techniques can be used in what is clearly prose. It’s not simply a matter of profundity or any other quality of content. Both poetry and prose can be deep, still and unfathomable; both can be shallow, fast flowing and limpid. Both, to push the metaphor, can be pools or streams.

It’s not simply a matter of the line breaks either……is it? Yet the line breaks are the one obvious marker of the poem.

Perhaps it’s not simply a matter at all, but rather subtly and complexly one; a matter even, perhaps of intention, of what we’re thinking when we decide to put in the first line break, and what we’re thinking in the aftermath of that decision.

The word ‘purity’ springs to mind, with implications, for me, of deep insight, and tight focus, and tighter structure. But I could say the same of prose, where I’d probably add, clarity, and revelation, but also, contradictorily, ambiguity and suggestion. Not helpful is the fact that we can have ‘poetic prose’, and think that an enhanced variety; we can have prosaic poetry – but will probably think that diminished.

Yet, the fact remains, though I have reached no conclusions, that I still, and often ask that question. The late (and great) Geoffrey Holloway once demanded in a poem, that we ‘ask the right question’, which here might be instead, ‘what makes me – the listener, or reader – think it’s poetry?’ But we still might have to put with not knowing the answer!  

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I’ve running a course at Carlisle’s Phil & Lit, on how we might read as writers, in order to get some insights into how we might write! It’s not so much a matter of stealing techniques, as of noticing them as we read; of paying more attention than we might if we were reading for fun, and not really paying attention.

Most of what you might say on such a course is a matter of common sense: read carefully, but notice your own reactions to what is being read…and as k the question, why did that particular group of words have that particular effect?

An exercise I’ve used several times is to give students a paragraph or two of writing, and get them to score the individual words: for what they think is the emotional impact of them. Some words have none = 0. Some have a small emotional charge = 1 Some have a big one =2.

It’s a rough and ready exercise, too ragged perhaps to be called a system, but it throws up, nevertheless all sort of interesting facets of the way a piece of writing has been written, and read.

For example, you tend to get clusters of scoring words. They aren’t evenly distributed throughout the piece. Often they cluster at particular places, like drunks on street corners, with highly charged words, and a bunch of lowly charged hangers on at paragraph beginnings and endings. Sometimes it works the other way, with groups gathering in the centre of paragraphs, and leaving the change points bereft.

If you carry out the exercise far enough into a piece of writing, you might start to notice that you’re scoring the same words differently, and perhaps an explanation for that might be that the words surrounding them are enhancing, or diminishing their powers. There’s also the reminder that words, quite simply, don’t carry the same weight for all of us: the strength of their meaning is not set by the dictionary definition, but by the circumstances in which we have encountered, and used them. This is one element of language that the nascent AI might struggle with, and, presumably, might erode or even destroy.

The exercise is one that a writer can carry out on their own writing, of course, and who knows, it might give some useful insights into how they think it will work…..

 

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

 BHD had a story accepted recently. He’d given it up, as far as that particular competition was concerned, but then the e-mail popped in. Long-listed, and to be included in the forthcoming anthology! Well, whadya know, as Kowalski might have said, as BHD might have made him say.

So I re-read it…

Yeah! That’s OK. I remember the story. I remember the little moment that impelled it…one of those ‘poetic impulses’ I might try to convince you, which V.S.Pritchett cited as being the starting point for short stories. For some – including the intending publishers, it might be a ‘Flash Fiction’, but I find it impossible, and unnecessary to make the distinction. A short story is a short story, however short – or even long – it is. It’s a sequence of events that bring us to a statement, or question, or suggestion, what-have-you, that gains its significance from what has gone before.

But that’s not what I’m writing about. It was re-reading it, looking for improvements that might be made (which, though, the would-be publishers might not accept – competition rules often disallow a tinker or two, an edit!).

I found one word, repeated in the same sentence. Clumsy, I thought, particularly when there was a perfectly good alternative. I switched it in my copy. They can do what the hell they like, I thought. It was a minor change.

Then I thought some more. Actually, the repetition, using the same word but in a slightly different context, might actually be drawing attention to that context. It certainly draws attention to itself. My change might make it look neater, smoother, but when that slightly rough repetition snags your reader’s mind maybe it adds something to the texture of the story, rather than merely interrupting it. Sometimes it’s better to leave the thorn to snag the palm of the hand that strokes! (or the reader, to you and me).

When it comes down to single words it might not be so easy, or even possible to see which way the balance tips between two choices.

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…?

THREE NEW CREATIVE WRITING COURSES FROM MIKE SMITH at DARREN HARPER’S CARLISLE PHIL & LIT SOCIETY

for all courses book through Darren Harper  via info@philandlit.org 

 

CREATIVE WRITING led by Mike Smith

Mondays, 7.00pm-9.00pm, 9th April to 18th June 2018. Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries, Carlisle.

£75 (£60 over 60/ £23 in receipt of benefits)

This 10 week Facets of Fiction course aims to give practising writers of prose fiction a regular input of informed feedback on work in progress.

 

AND

Further Into Fiction – a 10 week Fiction Writing Course

-designed by Darren Harper and taught by Mike Smith M.Litt (Glasgow)

Dates: 12th April to 21st June 2018 Thursdays 10.00am until 12.00 noon

Venue: The Carlisle Phil & Lit Society, Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries 18 Fisher Street Carlisle CA3 8RH

Fees: £75 full  (£60 over 60s/ £23 in receipt of benefit)

Description:

Intended for Beginners to Intermediate. Using a combination of exercises, tutorials and seminars I’ll lead students through an exploration of the elements of fiction writing: Beginnings, Endings, Locations, Characters, Storylines, and Narrative Voices among others.

PLUS

READING AS A WRITER

A 10 week CREATIVE WRITING course starting on 10th APRIL Tuesdays 1-00pm – 3.00pm

£75 (£60 over 60s/£23 students/benefits)

What can we look for in other people’s work?

What moves us; to tears or laughter, anger or compassion. And when we experience those feelings we can go back and see exactly which combinations of words have evoked them.

But that’s not all. We can also find out what can be done, and how it might be done, with plot, narrative voice, locations in time and place, characters and ambience.

 

Carnivale was written after my first encounter with Venice in October of 2016. I found the city amazing, I might even say awesome, if I knew the word. Right down to the window catches and the door latches, it caught and held my attention. What helped, perhaps, was that I was staying – for two nights only – in the north west, not far from the old Jewish quarter. It is an area of workshops and old houses, of decaying brickwork and all the narrative killing description that had to go into the story of Carnivale. The places in the story you could find, with a little luck (and that canal-side bar comes highly recommended), including the costumier’s shop. It was not open on the day I walked past, but the window, both literally and metaphorically, was a window onto another, imagined world: a world for which the word ‘imagined’ seems a pale representation. It was a fantastical world, and the perception that were you to dress in those clothes you would be changed utterly, and the world changed with you, was immediate and overwhelming.

It was that epiphany that I wanted the story to evoke, but also the realisation, that for each of us, as individuals we have to have the wit to see the gulf, and the courage to o’er leap it. (That’s the first time, I think, in sixty and more years that I’ve used the word ‘o’er’).

The Carnivale that you see in the Black Market Re-view, and, potentially in a ‘2017’ collection, intended to be published in 2018, is the 6th draft. It was a problem story right from the beginning – having to decide whether it was about Venice, or about its protagonist for example. And all that detail. It had to be overpowering within the story, but not get between the story and the reader. It had to be readable, yet the images had to be crowded in on each other. I wanted those narrow twisting streets with their four and five storey buildings, and their insistent detail, to crowd in on you – but not to the extent that you gave up on the reading.

Then there was the ending. A much earlier edition was sent out and got a useful rejection slip, with the sort of commentary that tells you it’s worth working on. That editor didn’t like the ending, wanting a more definitive one. I’m all for sharp endings, that stick it to you so you know where and how deep! But here I found myself wanting to leave it unsaid – to let the reader’s disposition tip the balance. Short stories, after all, are about the reader to some extent. How would they feel, think, and act in the situation? What would they expect their partner to do?

Later versions got into Longlists. Longlists can mean everything that was submitted – but in these two cases I think did not, and, like that helpful rejection, they can be an encouragement. Particularly pleasing about the BMR acceptance, was that it was made with so little tinkering required. A missing word here, a changed word there, a couple of re-ordered, rather than re-written sentences. In a 2000 word story (long for me) that was pretty minor – though it shows I could have paid more attention! In fact, reading through the story again did make me pay more attention, which is a curious thing. Knowing that someone is about to publish a story, sharpens the senses more than hoping they might, it seems.

Writing Carnivale came at an important time for me. I’ve been writing short stories for nearly twenty years, and two decades seems to me to be long enough to convince yourself you can’t do it. The last eighteen months or so have been a conscious last push before giving up. In fact, I’ve wrestled with the problem of just how to do that.

There has been a series of stories over that period that have been consciously different, at least in my mind, from those that went before. A series of so called ‘flash fictions’ also began to come to fruition during this time. Getting a higher than average proportion of them into print, with magazines, e-zines and journals, and perhaps into competition shortlist and prizes, might be a last gasp validation, perhaps, of that twenty year undertaking. Yet, the true, and proportionate success must always be that you’ve said what you felt needed saying, whatever anybody else might feel. You can find Carnivale in The Black Market re-View #4, here.

So the BBC had their man interview Tom Hanks yesterday, about his new collection of Short Stories (power to the man!)…but asked him how he felt about becoming ‘ a novelist’. Shades of Muhammed Ali – what’s my name? – but no blows rained sadly.

Today they topped it off with a decent short story on Radio 4 ….and you’ve guessed it….. ‘by the novelist…’

When will these people learn?

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a date for those of you in or near Carlisle, England: At Darren Harper’s Phil and Lit Society, Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries, Friday, 3rd November 7.00pm-8.30  English Short Stories between the Wars… a talk by Me (with help from BHD), looking at A.E.Coppard, H.E.Bates, V.S.Pritchett and others. (£4.50 members, £6 non-members). Book through website https://www.darrenharper.net/

Short stories occupy time and place. These can be locations as precise as a specific street corner on the stroke of noon on a particular, or as vague as there and then, but they are the ‘there and when’ of how stories happen. We talk of stories ‘taking place’, and often that place is crucial to the story being able to ‘take place’ at all. The timing too can be critical in how a story unfolds. There’s a many a story set before the days of mobile phones which would be simply unbelievable in an age of instant communications without elaborate, and perhaps unconvincing plot devices – ‘a funny thing happened to me on the day my mobile battery ran out’.

I’ll be looking at when and where stories come from and might be going to in a workshop for Darren Harper‘s Carlisle Phil and Lit Society, in room 8, Fisher Street Galleries, Carlisle, on Thursday 12th of October, 7.00pm to 9.00pm. Course Fee: £10 Booking: To book a place on the course, or to find out more, please contact Darren at darrenharper.esq@gmail.com

Writing buddy, Marilyn Messenger and I [Ambiguous Encounters, ten short stories by Marilyn Messenger and Brindley Hallam Dennis] will be reading as part of the Borderlines Showcase event at Carlisle Cathedral Fratry on Saturday evening, 7th October. Tickets are free. We have two more pairs of back-to-back stories, written individually but posing, and answering questions of each other. That’s Carlisle, England, by the way, for blog readers beyond these borders!

There was a wicked little device used in the Middle Ages (and later), to cripple cavalry horses.  I think it was called a caltrop. Thrown onto the ground it was so constructed as to fall always sharp side up. A three dimensional piece, you might imagine it as having a triangular base, from which three other triangles rise to that upward pointing sharpie.

The triangle as a metaphor for story – characters at the point, relationships along the lines, is a two dimensional object, but we could add that third dimension to it as well. That would be the narrator. But where is the author? Where is the reader (or listener, if the story is being told)?

Why not come along on Thursday 5th October to Mike Smith’s Facets of Fiction Workshop at Carlisle Library (10.00am-12.00 noon) and join in an exploration of this and other triangular conundrums about how we write short stories, and what we think they might be.  Tickets are available via the link, here.