Tag Archives: literature

Short poems with Greta Stoddart. Exeter Poetry Festival 2015.

What exactly is a short poem? How ‘short’ can ‘short’ go whilst still retaining impact and sense, giving satisfaction to the reader? These were some of the questions explored by Greta Stoddart and a fantastic group of poet-participants in a workshop for Exeter Poetry Festival I attended this weekend.

A combination of exercises, provocations, and discussion, the short workshop was hugely stimulating and enjoyable, sending this playwright off into the afternoon thinking about words, images, narrative, and something more elusive – what is known in Chinese poetry as tzu-juan: ‘An all-encompassing present… “occurrence appearing of itself”…where the speaker enters both the physical depths of the thing/moment observed and the greater depths of his/her own consciousness.’ (David Hinton Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China.’)

Greta believes that this ‘all-encompassing present’ is one type of short poem, with a narrative present – a snippet of a larger story – and an unreal, dream-like style or approach being a further two kinds. Further examples include the dramatic monologue (The Mother by Anne Stevenson), an opinion piece, or ‘telling’ poem, and humorous work (Ezra Pound’s The Bath Tub).

One of the largest pitfalls of short poetry is how they can be snapshots, mere fragments or impressions. In our group discussion, it became clear as readers we wanted more than the visual or immediate, although the possible impact of that was acknowledged.

Greta asked why we were drawn to the short form, and participants spoke of that white space – the silence – around the short poem, and how that offered the potential for reflection and meditation. The short poem also seemed to ask for less commitment from a reader than a longer poem, although the experience wasn’t necessarily a passive, or lesser one. Its accessibility was appreciated, as was its lightness and portability – you can pick up and learn a short poem easily by heart, and carry it with you, turning over images or questions in your mind long after you have put the physical poem down.

It was joyful to be in a room with such engaged and generous participants, guided by a sure and provoking (in the best sense!) hand. Greta shared examples of short poems with us, and led various exercises where we explored different starting points for new work, and ways to break open old poems which aren’t working, to make them fresh and get at their perhaps hidden, previously inaccessible centre. I won’t reproduce those exercises here, as I feel that is stealing from the poet/facilitator, but I encourage those interested to seek out Greta and attend other workshops she leads. You can find more about Greta, her work, and her workshops at: http://www.gretastoddart.co.uk  Exeter Poetry Festival details can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Name a thing and it is. Titles and character names…

I recently befuddled a friend with the title I’ve given my next play, ‘Cosy’. ‘But it’s about growing up, and ageing, and rubbish families and death!’ she exclaimed, ‘That’s hardly cosy material!’   ‘Exactly,’ I said.

This conversation made me reflect on the names we give things and the relationship we may have with titles. With plays, I either struggle and need suggestions and prompting, or I know straight away. I like titles of plays that hint at what I might experience if I attended a production – what’s been called ‘the promise’ is often there in the name. I like contradictions, or irony, or something that makes me pause and wonder about the content in an almost metaphysical sense. Beckett’s ‘All That Fall’ or ‘Rockaby’ lingered long after experiencing the text and production.

This then brought me back to a post I’d written about naming characters in our fiction or plays, and why they are important:

Shakespeare may have claimed a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but think of the added information that seeps through from knowing the character is called StJohn or Jerzey; Jonah or Jezebel; Shiraz or Shona, Sankaran or Steve. A sense of cultural heritage, class, social aspiration and period can be assumed through personal monikers.

Names are signifiers and they carry significance; more often than not they are a tip to the audience. It is not by chance that Ben Johnson’s protagonist in his Jacobean satire of lust and greed is called Volpone – Italian for ‘sly fox’.

Names can allude to character and disposition in an efficient, almost effortless way. Traditionally protagonists or heroes have big, heroic-sounding names – Lysander and Titania, Hermione and Ulysses. There is an underlying assumption of what a tragic or inspirational protagonist should be called – an assumption subverted to comedy effect by Monty Python in The Life of Brian.

Giving a character a name can be a significant moment for the writer in the process of making. It is perhaps when the fragmented flitting thoughts start finding shape in human form. When I’ve worked with writers on emerging scripts, some arrive with a name of a character as a starting point, and work outwards from there, guided by a sense of the individual’s personal traits, politics, guiding principles, almost as if they exist in reality and the writer personally knows them. Others, like me, may not have a name until well into the process. I sometimes have letters or numbers – 1, 2, 3, 4 – chosen simply by the order in which these emerging figures arrived on the page. When I find these numeric names limiting and annoying, snagging on my eye each time I read over the page, I know I have moved onto the next phase of development.

Naming characters always come swiftly. If I stumble between options, or dither, going eeny-meeny-miney-mo, I realise I don’t know enough yet about the character, or s/he is not yet sufficiently drawn to merit a title.

I can truthfully say I have never regretted a name I’ve given to a character, but that act of choosing has a galvanising effect on the way I engage with the character on the page, impacting on the words I put in her mouth, or the actions I give him.

I’m not sentimental about my work, so I never see them as my creatures or (god forbid) some kind of golem offspring – they are vehicles for my thoughts, or ideas I want to explore – but calling something brings it forth into being.

Name it, and it is.

Inspiration comes with the breath

I love the fact that the word ‘inspiration’ has its roots in breath – ‘being breathed upon’ in one online etymological source – as though artists were blessed or touched by some form of supernatural or divine grace. A thirteenth century source is even clearer: ‘immediate influence of God or a god.’ www.etymonline.com.

However, this lovely but romantic notion promotes the myth that we create through an external inspiration – a fickle force, sometimes favouring us, sometimes not – as though it is something other than the potential within each of us. Such persistent but old fashioned ideas suggests some people are creative and others not, and we must wait until the muse or inspiration strikes. It promotes being passive rather than active and making our own luck, our own inspiration, our own work.

I’ve written elsewhere that I believe the difference between writers and would-be writers (or artists and makers), is one gets on with it, whilst the would-be sits around talking about doing ‘it’ when the time is right and inspiration strikes, bringing the idea. I can be very scathing of this, calling it a form of laziness, an avoidance of doing the actual work. In kinder moods I know it can be the result of fear – of failing, of succeeding, of committing to oneself as a creative being, of finally taking on ‘the dream’ only for it to reveal itself as a nightmare… How much easier to put the responsibility outside ourselves. It’s something we can all be complicit in, Nietzche believed, rather than the reality of hard work and the lengthy creative process:

‘Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration… shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects… All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.’ Nietzsche.

It’s the most common question I get asked by taxi drivers and hairdressers: ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ My answer is long-winded and Evangelical:

From the ether, from life, from over-heards on the bus, from anecdotes we’re told, from newspaper headlines glimpsed on the train, from memories, from idle thought, from documentaries or articles, from received stories and pre-existing sources, from visual art, from going for a walk, from dreams, from anything and everywhere. The trick is in recognising the tug of interest and gathering up the stimulus or noting the idea before it goes, for it will. We will never remember those fleeting thoughts – they need to be notated before they evaporate.

We have to be like magpies – open eyed and curious, ready to dive down and snap up any bright, shiny thing that catches our attention. We often let the seed of an idea or inspiration pass, as it is simply a stirring, not a fully-formed plot, or an immediate understanding of what to write. In my experience that is inevitably a later phase, requiring considerable thought and effort, like heating and beating metal into pliancy and shape. The important task is to recognise the initial call and to understand it will take effort to make the oak from the acorn.

I don’t give too much thought to my selection of cuttings, images, essays, art gallery postcards and other miscellany which could be labelled roughly under ‘research’. It’s often completely instinctive – a tug in the gut and I’m buying that postcard, photographing that abandoned house or strange gully, surreptitiously tearing that article out of the decade old magazine in the dentist’s waiting room. I usually will not understand why I’m attracted to an image or a cutting or a phrase – I just know that it has spoken to my imagination in some way and so must be gathered, acknowledged. What this initial stirring turns into, if anything, is a different story….

Unlimited Commissions 2015

At a launch earlier this week, the next nine commissions from Unlimited were announced. I’m delighted to be one of them.

Cosy is a darkly humorous play in an inclusive production for a mainstream audience, exploring universal ethical issues of life, death, and our relationship to the medical profession, and its desire to mend and sustain the body, regardless of quality of life. It aims to examine the final taboo with wit, intelligence and full emotional engagement, powered by a disability perspective.

Kaite said:

“I’m delighted that the panel behind Unlimited have seen the potential in this new play, exploring what is arguably our last taboo – the means by which we shuffle off this mortal coil. I hope to explore this often feared topic with humorous irreverence, as well as sobriety and respect. What I love about humans is our ability to live joyfully and in the moment, despite the knowledge our time is finite and we will all die one day. How these two opposing perspectives co-exist will be fascinating to explore theatrically – and the deceptions, avoidances, contradictions and confrontations within a family with distinct and different ethical, religious, and political perspectives of end of life scenarios.

As someone who identifies as disabled, I have long been part of a vibrant community known for its joie de vivre and gallows humour – created, perhaps, from our knowledge of the fragility and resilience of the human body. I want to bring some of the quality of this insight and perspective to the script, in a production I hope will be funny, quirky, honest, daring, and fully engaging emotionally and intellectually.’

‘Cosy’ will be directed by internationally recognized Wales-based director, Phillip Zarrilli. It will premiere in Wales in spring 2016 before taking it to the Unlimited festivals at the South Bank, London and Tramway, Glasgow in September 2016.

Jo Verrent, Senior Producer of Unlimited, said:

‘Art is at the heart of Unlimited; it’s the work that disabled artists and companies create that has the power and potential to transform perceptions. It’s a real privilege to be able to extend that opportunity now not just to artists based in England and Scotland but Wales too. I can’t wait to see what they all have to offer!’

COMMISSIONS

The nine Unlimited commissions for 2015-16 span a wide range of disciplines – including theatre, visual arts, dance and literature – and are created by some of the most talented disabled artists in the UK.

‘Demonstrating the World’ Aaron Williamson (Visual Arts)
‘The Doorways Project’ Bekki Perriman (Other)
‘TV Classics Part 1’ Cameron Morgan (Visual Arts)
‘The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight’ Claire Cunningham (Dance)
‘Grandad and the Machine’ Jack Dean (Literature)
‘Cosy’ Kaite O’Reilly (Theatre)
‘Assisted Suicide: The Musical’ Liz Carr (Theatre)
‘Cherophobia’ Noemi Lakmaier (Visual Arts)
‘Him’ Sheila Hill (Theatre)

http://weareunlimited.org.uk/commissions/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DT_ayisd2go

Several lives, several careers, changing form.

Maybe it’s my greed for experience, but I’ve always wanted to lead several lives, a desire made manifest through my choice of projects and parallel careers. I have been a physical theatre performer, a chambermaid, a live art practitioner, and a relief aid worker in war zones. I have written librettos, radio drama, short film, prose; sold shoes, meat, and advertising copy; directed film and dance theatre; been a writer in residence and Creative Fellow; and supervised postgraduate degrees in writing for performance whilst participating in Deaf arts, disability culture and the mainstream.

I think one of the most important lessons I have learnt is never to perceive myself as one thing. This business will often try to label us, slap a convenient sticker on our forehead and file us away under a limiting, narrow definition. Although often seen as perverse, I pride myself on not being easy to define. I try to keep experimenting, taking on new challenges and developing my skills.

I’ve often found in the UK that diversity is seen as an anomaly, a vulgar excess to be treated with suspicion. Phrases like ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ damn the Renaissance wo/man. I know writers who have limited their careers and creativity by believing it’s inappropriate to try something new (‘stick to what you know. Why change a winning horse?’) or who believe that there are set patterns and processes to adhere to (if only they could decipher them), rather than inventing new ones.

When engaging with press to publicise a particular project, in my experience they will invariably do one of two things: simplify my career and back catalogue in order to focus the article, or make a feature of the fact I write for more than one medium – but not necessarily in a good way: ‘If it’s Tuesday, she’s writing a novel – the confusing life of playwright Kaite O’Reilly.’ This was the actual headline in a regional newspaper some years ago, which begged the question: confusing for whom?

Perhaps this is a cultural thing, but achievement or multiple skills aren’t embraced in the UK as they may be elsewhere – unless you’re also undermining your efforts by making a self-deprecating comment verging on self-loathing.

I personally love getting to know a writer through different genres or forms: The novelist who also writes award-winning screenplays and illustrates childrens’ books and sculpts and paints (http://www.markhaddon.com); the poet who is also a novelist (ee cummings and his harrowing novel of the First World War, The Enormous Room); the novelist who also writes and performs Haiku (listen to Jack Kerouac on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJdxJ5llh5A&feature=player_embedded).

I also think that this attitude is currently shifting – there seems to be more opportunity for practitioners to explore other form – or perhaps it’s becoming a financial or career imperative? Literary fiction writers changing form if not medium is considerably more common, with a host of ‘literary thrillers’ entering the market, and several scare stories of writers being dropped by their publisher and agent for not attracting enough readers, and so experimenting with a more commercial genre.

There are other more positive and nurturing projects aimed at extending the careers and broaden the opportunities for exceptional writers. I’m immensely excited in being one of the mentors on Y Labordy, a new tailored initiative for experienced Welsh language writers of theatre, film and TV, led by Literature Wales.

 

Bethan Marlowe, Jon Gower, Fflur Dafydd, Dafydd James outside Ty Newydd

Bethan Marlowe, Jon Gower, Fflur Dafydd, Dafydd James outside Ty Newydd

The objective of this ground-breaking initiative is to create a pool of contemporary writing talent with the capability of writing high calibre scripts for different media platforms and to broaden ability for writing from an international perspective. The tremendously talented team are Fflur Dafydd, Jon Gower, Dafydd James and Bethan Marlowe – and I’ve been fascinated and thoroughly engaged in conversations with Jon and Daf as we negotiate medium and cross form.

Such endeavours fill me with excitement and inspire me with possibility. Perhaps we’re back again to my greediness, but I just want more, more, more….

(This is revised from an earlier blog)

On the dangers of believing in ‘writer’s block’…

I’ve just been asked by a magazine to give my thoughts on the terrible condition called writer’s block. I’m afraid I gave them short shrift.

I don’t believe in it. I’m frustrated when this excuse is peddled as a way of excusing poor preparation, or tiredness, or the need to do further research, or rest, breathe, look at the landscape or generally put more ‘food’ in the ‘cupboard’. We need stimulus, we need new experiences and sensations, we need change and to be active, and we also need to rest. This is natural, and I believe all humans need it. What I get perplexed about is when this malaise is wheeled out to explain why someone is not working. I have seen people grind to a halt (or not even start) and remain there for months and even years, saying ‘writer’s block’ as though that’s it, the end, and there’s nothing to be done but wait until it unblocks itself in its own sweet time, if ever….

This is not to be confused with burn-out, or lack of confidence, or an overly-active critic in the head who murmurs endlessly about how crap you are, or a host of other debilitating conditions we also have to get over in order to do what we do… And after blasting the poor editor with my thoughts about how we indulge notions of writer’s block to the benefit of a burgeoning self-help industry, but to the detriment of the profession (it adds to the fantasy of the tortured, suffering artist and lets lazy writers get away with it), I became superstitious and wondered if I was inviting hubris….

I have never had writer’s block as I see writing as a craft and profession, as well as one of the greatest joys and solaces of my life. In the past when I have failed to write it was because I needed rest, or stimulus, or discipline, or a few quiet nights in and less out on the tiles – I needed to research more, to plot better, to be more spontaneous, or less jaded – I just needed to get on and do the bloody work. I started seeing the difference between a writer and a would-be writer as the latter talks about it, endlessly, whilst the real thing just applies the seat of the pants to a chair and gets on with it.

When I teach I have a series of timed exercises I encourage writers to do at home to start afresh, or change direction, so instead of falling into that big hole in the manuscript they are making bigger by boring their eyes into it, they might find it less intimidating by approaching from a different place.

I have never found a problem with writing that couldn’t be solved by writing.

And then I found other writers felt similar to me – wonderfully successful and talented writers, whose words might make be feel less superstitious about inviting hubris when I write ‘I don’t get writer’s block.’ I can’t afford to come to a stop with a show going into tech’ in Taipei art Festival and another starting rehearsals in the UK this week, and a short monologue to write for Agent 160’s Fun Palace…

So over to Philip Pullman….

“Writer’s block…a lot of howling nonsense would be avoided if, in every sentence containing the word WRITER, that word was taken out and the word PLUMBER substituted; and the result examined for the sense it makes. Do plumbers get plumber’s block? What would you think of a plumber who used that as an excuse not to do any work that day?

The fact is that writing is hard work, and sometimes you don’t want to do it, and you can’t think of what to write next, and you’re fed up with the whole damn business. Do you think plumbers don’t feel like that about their work from time to time? Of course there will be days when the stuff is not flowing freely. What you do then is MAKE IT UP. I like the reply of the composer Shostakovich to a student who complained that he couldn’t find a theme for his second movement. “Never mind the theme! Just write the movement!” he said.

Writer’s block is a condition that affects amateurs and people who aren’t serious about writing. So is the opposite, namely inspiration, which amateurs are also very fond of. Putting it another way: a professional writer is someone who writes just as well when they’re not inspired as when they are.”

Fabulous. No-nonsense and to the point. Couldn’t have put it better myself. Now I’m off to write that monologue….

“Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do.”

 

I was in a conversation recently with an essayist, scholar, and poet about ‘the two kinds of writer’: the prevaricating would-be who is always waiting for the perfect time to make the work, and the driven over-achiever who is always working and never really living.

Our conversation boiled down to those who do too much and those who do too little – and both were problematic.

This isn’t one of those posts where I present polar opposites and then ask ‘A or B: Which one are you?’ There is a plethora of ways of working (or not working) and these can differ day to day, if not project to project, with a whole host of challenges, approaches, and excuses in between for the individual writer.

The one thing I can confidently say about my working day is it will be unpredictable. Sometimes I’m up at my desk before I’m fully awake, head full of the next section of the project. Other days are slower, when I need to read and re-read everything I’ve written to sink back into the work through a process of what feels like hypnosis or osmosis. I can hope to make progress and will try to create the best conditions for a satisfying day of writing and thinking, but I’m ultimately not in control of my environment, especially here in Berlin (I usually live in the country). If the car alarm on the street is going to keep screaming at five minute intervals, or the children in the apartment upstairs are going to keep racing drunkenly around the hard floor in spike heels swiping at each other with socks full of heavy change (well, that’s what it sounds like), and the street musicians from the local market are going to play that addictive ‘I want to dance around and pretend to be an imaginary Edith Piaf in Paris’ accordion music in the five minute intervals when the car alarm isn’t screaming, well, there’s not a lot I can do about it, except go somewhere else or block it all out.

Some writers are lazy, some writers are workaholics, but most writers beat themselves up a lot.

So in an attempt to gee-up the slackers and cut slack for the over-achievers, here’s two quotations I came across this week:

The first, from the great writer William Faulkner:

“Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”

 

This is another one of those quotations I want to hang above my desk to keep me focused. I like the fact that although on first reading it appears competitive, on closer reflection it reminds me in my work I am really only in relationship to myself and my own notions of ambition and success.

This next one is from Dinaw Mengestu, Guardian first book award winner and one of The New Yorker‘s ’20 under 40’. This  goes out for all of those disturbed by stiletto-wearing wailing children dancing flamenco on your ceilings:

“The older I get, the fuller and more complex my life becomes with family, friends, students, and above all children. I’ve learned now not to be precious about the conditions I work in. I’ve learned not to wait for the total silence, which on the vast majority of days, will never, ever come. And so forget about hoping to find the proper weather, or the light that pleases you best of all colours (to steal a phrase from William Carlos Williams). Abandon the desire, masked as need for perfectly pressed coffee. Write in crowds, in alleys, in the back seats of crumb-filled cars. Steal time from the crowded world even if it’s only a few minutes, or a blessed hour. Take being tired and emotionally exhausted as an excuse to take excessive liberties with language, with your imagination.”

 I love that – whatever the condition, humour, weather, or situation – take excessive liberties with language and imagination…….

And enjoy!