Monday, September 26, 2011

Writing from Source

The phrase/title has been echoing in my head: What Lies Beneath - because of London smoke-friend and her recent blog post, and yes I know it is also the title of a horror film that I never saw. The blog post speaks about an art exhibition beneath Waterloo station that I would love to see, but it ends today and getting to London is for me in any case, you know, a big deal so I don’t do it much. It is a literal underground place - but also speaks some larger message “about the dank, dirty, unexplored places where art comes from, under ground, under consciousness...”

I have been thinking about this recently in connection to my own writing project (see how I shy away from the word ‘novel’). It draws deeply from my own, early life which was, as I experienced it, full of magic but also full of danger and darkness. In her book, Writing as a Way of Healing, Louise de Salvo cautions against being too casual about dipping your pen into the vein of troubled experience. I picture a manhole, the cover of which is lifted - and out come the monsters and creatures that you never expect to see above ground, and you are suddenly defenceless, disarmed, made small and weak again by their potent presences. I think one of the reasons I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer was that it covered this terrain and drew on powerful archetypes. At some point you probably, if you are going to Make Art, have lift the cover or go down there because the underground life will undoubtedly find a way of making its presence felt, will emerge from the Beneath and challenge you to engage with it or go dry and wordless - and if you write, you can’t have that. How to do that, and have the right defences in place so that you are not overwhelmed, is a challenge and not for the faint-hearted.

The creativity coach, Eric Maisel says that an artist is someone who must learn to manage her/his emotions and if there is any truth in the notion that artists tend to be several skins short of a a sausage then it is particularly important that they learn to do this sooner rather than later. I am doing it later, but never mind. You have to begin where you are, and I am here, at the tail end of my fifties, raw and undisciplined (still), and I never learned how to kick-box. What I did learn, by hook or by crook, and by deep immersion in fairy tale, was to trust the story - that it would take you to the place where you needed to go, and that it would, if you allowed, stay with you and be your sword; and how, if you undertook to make a journey, you would find helpers en route. And how if you found yourself out in the dark forest completely naked, the stars would see you and throw down their gold.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Only Connect

Reading Ms Baroque’s latest post this morning; one of the things she speaks about is how difficult it is to keep up with everything in the poetry world and having a finger on the pulse as to who is doing what, let alone getting anything written. Sometimes I wonder how I would be living if I hadn’t needed to negotiate with M.E./CFIDS for the past quarter of a century or so. It can baffle me, in any case, to think of how anyone gets anything done, and with the virtual world making it so easy to be instantly in touch with what is happening, it is easy to lose that shut-away state of being that you need in order to dive deep into the well of your own creative source.

There are times I long to be one of those who can flit from one point of focus to another with a kind of perpetually adjustable tunnel vision: now I am chopping the parsley and coriander for a kedgeree; now I am working on my novel-in-progress; now I am moving into the substance of a poem or arranging the contents of my sock drawer. This last is for illustration - I do not have a sock drawer, but if I were such a person then perhaps I would have one.

I know a writer who describes herself as having ADHD and believes that it is a blessing in her case because it gives her the ability to do many things. She brings tunnel-vision to whatever it is that she is working on and can achieve much more than most in twenty minutes. How useful this would be. But I am not one of those and require a substantial amound of dream-time, which you might think I have in abundance, but I separate good-quality dream-time from laid-up ill-time where thinking is scrambled and one is too much in the body, with its delinquent demands and malfunctions.

And where, in all this, does social networking fit in? Earlier in the year I joined Facebook and now it is Twitter. Last night I watched snippets from Old Grey Whistle Test on BBC4 and began tweeting about it! Why? Because it was fun, is the obvious answer. With the hash tag thing, I saw who else was tweeting, made a sparky connection with someone I don’t know and most likely won’t see again - we shared a moment that brought a smile to each of us, is all - is enough. But there is another impulse: I want to feel connected - whatever that might mean - to the world as it is now. I don’t think social networking is necessary for this but it is something that offers itself easily. I can’t physically zip about to poetry and other cultural events, but I can to some extent keep up with what is happening in a way that would not otherwise be possible. Yes, sometimes I very much love the internet. And sometimes I am very much aware that I have to be careful not to lose myself in it, remember that Notebook is my best friend, steady and true, always giving my proper reflection back to me, waiting and listening with a golden ear for the words that come into its pages.

“We are in it for the long haul,” says London smoke-friend. And the loneliness of the long-distance writer, especially when there is no end yet in sight, and no guarantee at all that persistence will bring what the world calls success, is something to be nourished and embraced.

I am still learning about the Mac. Had my first lesson at the Apple store yesterday with a courteous but slightly bored young geek and there was something about him slightly at odds with the cult-like upbeatness of the Apple environment. I have retained a fraction of what he taught me. We will no doubt cross paths again.


Monday, September 19, 2011

Cat o' Nine Signs. Arrrrr!

Blisterin' barnacles, me buckos! It be Talk Like A Pirate Day and not one o' ye scurvy varmints seen fit to remind me? Time was when I'd have sent y'all to dance wi' Jack Ketch, but let it pass, for Cap'n Hooker is of a mind to be lenient. Now where's me grog? I'd be hoistin' the Jolly Roger, but truth to tell, Cat o' Signs has got a pox-ridden mange or some peculiar baldy thing on one of her ears, and as it ill befits a Cap'n o' my stature and standin' to have a creature that's half bald I went to have a parley with the vet hereabouts, no matter that it be the third time in as many weeks and costin' a heap o' doubloons on account of her scurvy thyroid gland. She be gettin' on in years, but not yet old enough to be feedin' the fish, and what with the cost o' homeopathic pills an' potions the vet will be kissin' the gunner's daughter if we don't get a result sharpish, arrr!

Sail-ho, me hearties, that's all ye be gettin' out o' this sea-dog now, but I'll be back ere the mold on me mizzen falls off, firin' a cannon through yer porthole before ye can say yo ho ho an' a bottle o' rum.

So watch it.


Sunday, September 18, 2011

member of the wedding

All day at a wedding yesterday - in Bethnal Green, where I lived in my twenties. The town hall is now a hotel and one can do the whole wedding bash there. We filed into the old magistrates court/town hall chamber where the wedding took place and waited for the show to begin. Every part of the ceremony had been rehearsed. My daughter and the other bridesmaids, all decked out in shades of Peacock, stepped in to the sound of Regina Spektor singing Fidelity, and then it began, the weeping. It was us, the wedding guests, unprepared for the power of ceremony and the thing that happens sometimes in a church or a theatre, when a production is perfectly choreographed, directed and orchestrated and we are lifted out of the mundane world. The groom's voice broke as he made his vows, the bride stated that she had loved him in her heart from the outset, the registrar presided like a midwife or a ministering angel. Afterwards, over fizzy champagne and small talk across a white linen-covered table competing with a cacophony of echoing voices, where we conversed with people whose only real connection to us was the experience we had just shared, we reduced it: beautiful wedding, bride looked lovely, the flowers - oh - the dress, and isn't it strange, we said, how it is back in fashion again, the wedding, and someone talked about how she ran out of tissues because of the crying. I smirked, or tried to smile (the wedding breakfast was not until 3pm, crucifixion-time for the adrenally-challenged chronically-fatigued). I didn't say about the residual ache located just beneath my breastbone, as though someone very much loved from miles of separating years had appeared and then disappeared, or a snatch of conversation had been heard in a language one had almost forgotten. It felt like homesickness. I can't think what else. I think at times like this we are in Babylon and remember Zion. This is not fitting for small talk, or perhaps even any kind of talk at all. And in any case, what words would we use to express such a thing? I ate vichyssoise with truffle, fillet steak, panna cotta, cake. It receded, the homesickness.

Home again, I was up till the small hours, limbs and muscles refusing to settle, then awake again early. I was beyond tired today, but kept afloat in a small frenzy, attending to this and that, admin things and making a vegetable and barley soup to make up for yesterday's cream, sugar and caffeine.

Autumn, its urgency, begins to move in and around me. Body hurts but I whisper it to buoyancy and don't let myself lie down. The year has been too long, too hard. I want to keep going.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

five reasons why you should follow me on Twitter

- Because I might be famous one day. If for some reason that is not immediately apparent this should happen, then you will really wish you had followed sooner rather than later. It just looks better and nicer.

- Because it's nice to be nice. True - nice is back in fashion, and this is not just me getting old or even a bit less rock an roll. Nice is like Christmas and birthday cards, and exquisite cakes with your coffee, it puts a small glow in the middle of you, where a glow should be, but sometimes one struggles (does one not, now and then) to keep it there. Re cards and cakes, anyone want to tell me about paper wastage and blood sugar levels - don't. Be nice.

- Because I have had a radical new hair cut. Yes, on Twitter you can see the beaming, new-look Signs, cropped and salt and pepper grey. You can also see a small gap at the side where a tooth is missing. It adds to the character, trust me.

- Because if you follow me then I might follow you back. That is actually almost a certainty. I was about to say that beggars can't be choosers, but what I really mean is that I am in the first flush of enthusiasm, not to mention New Kid on the Block, and will therefore say yes to anyone, unless it seems obvious that you are going to be a seriously unpleasant person or dangerous psychopath. And right now I am actually interested in all this and - potentially - you. Which may not be the case if I become famous like, say, Stephen Fry who everyone seems to follow. For he has over three million followers, and how could he possible be interested in all of them?

- Because you are very curious to see what a 'fatigue-artiste and martyr*' actually does with herself, and this will give you a hotline to the Life of Signs, not to mention the odd line of verse and piece of poetic prose.

*Quentin Crisp described himself as "exhibitionist and martyr". If you have never watched the film The Naked Civil Servant, then you must. Having M.E./CFIDS does not carry the same danger as being a homosexual in the earlier part of the twentieth century did. But it carries its own stigma, is widely misunderstood - and it is an artistic work-in-progress to be living with it, in creative relationship.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


I met with a couple of local poets today to talk about readings coming up at the village literary festival. Over barm brack and tea, we tossed some poems about to see what we might read. I continue to feel ambivalent about poetry readings. On the one hand there is something about speaking the words, putting them into the realm of sound, and the listening ear. But not all poets are good speakers of their work, and some poems ask rather for the intimacy of one-on-one relationship to words on the page. It is often said that the poem only comes properly to life when spoken aloud. I don't necessarily agree. There is another kind of voice that sounds in the ear when one is alone with a poem on the page. It is an aspect of the unique relationship we build with a writer, so that the words, if we make a connection to them, sound in us as though we ourselves are the very source of them.

As a child, I would sometimes copy out poems - verses that I liked - and feel as though it was written by me - that I owned the words as much as the one who composed them. If words are bread of a kind, then in a sense I did own them for I had ingested them and they were now a part of me (one benefit, had I known, of learning by heart). Some of A Child's Garden of Verses did sustain the soul-life of me in ways I could not have articulated.

The Dog, and the Plough, and the Hunter, and all,
And the star of the sailor, and Mars,
These shown in the sky, and the pail by the wall
Would be half full of water and stars.

This was probably not the first of such experiences, but the pail that was "half full of water and stars" was an initiation into the power of metaphor. It was a poetry-shock: something could be itself on a mundane level, and yet be a doorway to magic and otherworld. Luckily I did not hear it read out loud at school. When teachers read verse they put on a 'poetry voice' and deadened it.

I remember the poet George Szirtes at a reading, saying that he did not do "cabaret." I think I understood what he meant. He was there to read his poems, not to deliver entertainment or do Performance poetry. I squirmed a bit, though, because the truth is that I find poetry readings with an element of performance much easier to take in. This is partly because poetry is often dense with meaning and also because (having M.E.) I am cognitively challenged and brain can get quite suddenly overloaded. But mainly I think it is because not all poets are able to stand fully in their words and deliver them. Well, and why should they? The words we write are sometimes better than we are, and when written they are (and really should be) gone from us.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

free flame

I would like to tell you that I am writing this post from my sweet and slender new Mac Air book. I have one, it is up and running, lying with the cat on my bed, as it happens. But I don't yet properly know how to use it. I have to go to classes at the Apple place, not joking. For a not entirely modest amount you can get a year's worth of unlimited tuition, which is what I have got. But in the joy of the purchase (esp as not with my money but in return for certain services rendered - don't ask), and in an atmosphere of almost cult-like upbeat positivity (the shop assistants, if one can call them that, really believe in all things Mac and are radiant with the faith) it just seemed as though I would beam myself there and back, Tardis-like, whenever. Ha ha, I hear you say. Yes, and so I have not actually learned how to do the Mac word-processing thing yet. So this comes to you from my trusty Dell P C.

Well, so I am back, with a radical hair cut, short and spiky, all the old colour gone and the grey is - though I say it myself - pleasing. I was actually only away for a week, cavorting in Monaco harbour, the yachting playground of the disgustingly rich. The yacht that we were on was a mere dinghy in comparison with some of the floating hotels I saw. It was horribly hot and humid, but sailing out into the bay, swimming in the sea, was very good, and I slept well on the boat. But enough of that, I don't want to be telling you about what I did in my summer holidays. No, I have more pressing things on my mind.

Autumn is upon us, says the wind that has been tearing about in these parts, bending the boughs of the oak and ash. It is early, and summer didn't have much of a look-in, but never mind, it is here; and so it is time to review, re-dedicate and focus on what next because that is what I do in autumn, whether or not it seems practical because of the restrictions imposed by M.E. My plan is always, in any case, to be feeling, by whatever degree, better. If that is scuppered it won't be by me, but by M.E. So:

Out comes the new notebook and the intention of doing the Morning Pages again, because doing them is a good thing as long as one does not fall into a pit of writing only about illness and despair, and I do not intend to. My focus will be on process (creative) and the lovely incidentals of life in ordinary, which is good for the soul and for poetry.

The novel is progressing - so slowly that you can hardly see it move, and I've been so hammered with one thing and another that it hasn't been given much time, but still - the evidence is there in black and white word count that it is progressing, and it is still alive in me, the characters have not wasted away, as can sometimes happen when you don't give a story enough attention. A sizeable chunk is waiting to be transferred from notebook to computer. I still find composition best to do with pen and paper and even the beautiful Mac is unlikely to change this.

Not writing much new poetry. Can't be helped, I have promised the novel that it will get the best of my sustained attention. But there are readings coming up - one at the end of this month and another in October, and there is enough to be working on and revising.

Courtesy of lovely Kindle, I have been reading Titus Groan, the first part of the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake, a wonderful, fantastical, poetic creation. From time to time the narrator makes an observation that I take to be Mervyn Peake, writer and artist, speaking about how it is when mind is fully present and engaged in the creative act. Here, one of the characters, a young girl called Fuchsia, entering her secret attic place:

As Fuschia climbed into the winding darkness her body was impregnated and made faint by a qualm as of green April. Her heart beat painfully.

This is a love that equals in its power the love of man for woman and reaches inwards as deeply. It is the love of a man or of a woman for their world. For the world of their centre where their lives burn genuinely and with a free flame.

It is always a work in progress for most of us, I think, to reclaim or inhabit that world more fully. To this, with the strong breath of autumn, I re-dedicate myself.