Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Bolton Octagon

What I so love and appreciate about poetry audiences is how attentive they are - no chatting, going to the bar or texting - as a general rule. The live literature world is very priviledged (say in comparison to the musos).

And last night's gig at the Octagon was no exception. I was the support act to Chanje Kunda's new show The Last Tabboo. A good choice - in that our work is so very different the audience's attention is rewarded.

We were in the upstairs bar, a small well lit space, and as I moved about the 'stage' I had plenty of opportunity to watch them watching me. While this is potentially disconcerting - there's always the possibility of seeing someone yawn, looking thoroughly bored or picking their nose or whatever - I love this close contact with people, to watch their facial reactions to the words I've strung.

And it also forces me to stand behind, or possibly alongside, what I've written and am now speaking. It's a real test of the authenticity of my work.

When I'm writing, while I am powered by the urge to communicate or release or structure an idea or experience, I can get so consumed by the words, their resonances and echoes, that I can get led by sound and rhythm over meaning. I know I've previously blathered on about the distinction (or lack of) between sound and sense. Having an audience is a litmus test of whether the two are tongue and grooved.

Friday, 24 April 2009

New Discovery

I went to one of Manchester's Central Library's readings a wee while ago and heard Mark Illis read a story from his new collection Tender. I was blown away.

It is a collection of short stories revolving around one family (stories take different points of view). The one he read was told by the daughter, absolutely heartbreaking in its observation, teenagerism (?) and perfectly timed.

I didn't have enough money to buy a book so can't tell you any more aout the other pieces, but on the strength of what I heard, would thoroughly recommend getting hold of the book. What can be better than a series of well-tuned short stories, that know exactly where to start and end, that don't over-egg the situation and that together add up to the bigger picture we associate with a novel?

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Shake Down

For those of you waiting with baited breath - we got the boat back into the water the week before Easter.

We then proceeded to spend about six wo/man days so it was ready to go sailing: getting the electrics reconnected (not my job); running rig (the ropes) back on board, in place; sails attached; sink glued in; life raft, flares etcetera back on; scrub throughout and numerous other little bits and pieces, not to mention the three hoiks to the top of the mast to unravel halyards (ropes that hold sails up) and rejig the furler, which you'll remember from this entry.

The thing about being at the top of the mast is every teensy step that the people on the deck make is reverberated several fold by the time it's travelled 40 odd feet vertically, so you're left swinging violently. I took the first trip up, reminding myself that I'd done it when one boat I was crewing on was underway. I was 23 that time and now hated the thought of having lost the courage I'd had then. I can't remember when I was last so scared. You don't actually have to do anything to get up except keep cool - the people below winch you up, you just feed yourself up the mast and make sure you don't get your legs the wrong side of the stays (the wires that hold it up).

It was only once down and in the pub that we read that on no account should you use snap shackles to be winched up on - exactly what we had used and I kept looking at in apprehension on the way up - they are a quick release, supposedly when tugged, but not half as secure as ones that are screwed in nice and slowly, and need to be screwed nice and slowly out.

But we did it, with the loss of one washer and a few curse words overboard. So three of us got the pleasure of checking all the ropes pulled the right things and the sails did what they were meant to and we could remember what was what and how to ask for things nicely of each other.

We had the lightest of breezes - about six knots to take us north over the bay to Piel Island, just off Barrow, which we caught at a speed of about three knots - we could have walked faster - but just perfect to test everything. And then to arrive at Piel Island - a bird kingdom, guarded by grey seals - with enough time to circumnavigate the island, nose about the castle ruins, grab a beer before cooking dinner under a glossed pink sky and the hurl and hush of gulls and ducks bedding down for the night.

Despite the other anchored boats, the campers on the island, the lights of Barrow and the rev of the ferryman's engine, that night felt like the most solitary, expansive beginning of the year for me. The start of another season of boating. I think I might mark it with the writing of my first poem in six months.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Wildthorn - a cracking read

I read Jane Eagland's novel this week. I picked it up in a slightly zombified state on Easter Monday, thinking a couple of hours reading would see me right before an early bed. It didn't. I couldn't put it down. And consequentially found myself finally switching off the light five hours later, when I knew what did happen to Louisa, who had betrayed her in the first place and how she dealt with her discovery.

It's being marketed as a novel for teenagers, and to that effect is a straightforward read, but the characters are complex and empathetic, even the 'evil' Weeks, and the theme of the book - incarceration of women into Victorian asylums for 'deviancy' - is potent and richly researched, lightly executed. Louisa's crime is that she want's to be a doctor, and doesn't want to marry. She becomes friends with a rape victim. Another woman was dumped there for being unmarried, and dependent on her brother and his wife.

My only complaint would be the cover. I understand it's a strong selling point, but it's precisely the restrictive nature of the corset (and all it's 'feminine' aspirations) that Louisa challenges.

I've worked with Jane. She was published in Flax001 and we've kept in contact since then. So seeing her motivation behind the story, how it quietly displays her sense of injustice and horror at this all too common practice, was an added pleasure, and gave another perspective to my read. Jane's need to illuminate the abhorrent dependent 'non-status' women had in the nineteenth century is what fuels the book, keeps the fire of the language and plot alive. It made me realise what a great, compassionate, socially responsible writer she is and why I hold her in such high esteem.

She is currently writing her second book. It'll be a pleasure to read her next quiet expression of passion.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Sound and Sense

Back in Southport at the weekend to hook up with Gambolling Arena to hear them run through the first draft of the Edith and Marlene piece, which now has a name, phew - I Wish You Love. It's always an odd thing to hear people read out the words I've written.

I know the cadences I intended, the subtext of the words. And while I did add some instructions, I wanted it to remain as much a piece of text rather than a script. I know, I know, that's what it is, but I guess I don't consider myself a playwright and so wanted to hang on to some sense of poetry ... Also, I guess I was interested to hear how the words and interaction between the two characters came across to the actresses and director.

Watching other people manipulate my words was the main reason for taking on the job.

I'm not convinced Edith is as volatile as she should be. But that edgy fine line of fragility that I wanted for her is so far removed from me, I really struggled to conjure it up through sentences. We're leaving the text as is. Letting the actresses work on their delivery, voices and when we come back to it in three weeks I'll know more as to whether I need to rework the text. What none of us want is a pastiche.

Which is exactly what Steve Lewis, Beth Allen and myself got at times yesterday when we got together for a little improvisation play which might (or might not) be the start of a new project.

Both Steve and Beth are seasoned improvise singers/performer. Beth is also a trained opera singer. I'm just an enthusiast with a love of being very silly. We sat in the new auditorium of the Storey Institute and bounced off each other with rhythm, pitch and storytelling. We had rules to adhere to or break, providing a structure, that kept us moving - since we couldn't do the same thing as someone else, but were forced to listen intently to each other. Observation of ourselves and enviroment is what I love about this kind of interaction, as I've said before. It's like being the Andy Goldsworthy of sound: creating rolling annecdotes arising from place that focused more on sound than sense. Which some would argue is the same thing.

Which brings me back to the dilemma with Edith. If the actress can find the right voice, how does it matter about the words?

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Is it a boat? Is it a poem?

We're one anode and about a 30cm square short of antifoul paint of having the boat ready to go back into the water.

This is why we need a new anode
It's meant to look like this. It's its job. It's a sacrificial anode - one of my favourite (of many favourites) names of bits and bobs on the boat. It sounds so melodramatic. It isn't really. It just quitely corrodes so the propeller and prop shaft don't. So the propeller, in its shaft, can spin and move the boat forward and back when we want. But once its corroded, we need a nice new one to corrode all over again.

The blue background of this wonderful picture is the old antifoul paint. That stops barnacles and weed growing on the hull which would slow the boat down. And since we're already going pretty slowly - a good speed is 5 knots - we don't need any unnecessary drag. It is now a brighter, more turquoisey blue, and I'm making the most of it since we won't see it for much longer.

Antifoul paint has been one of the many contentious issues during our overwintering jobs. Four people owning one boat means a lot of discussion. Obviously the paint is not designed to be 'green' and have no impact on the environment. That would negate its job. Although you can buy other clever ones that flake off and turn into water and copper based ones that don't need repainting every year. We need to research more, argue more and then put off the decision for another year.

As well as servicing the winches we've serviced the water system, smartened up the galley, polished the topsides, checked the rigging, washed a whole heap of ropes, sanded and varnished any wood (fortunately not a lot on a fibreglass boat), filled cracks in the decks and lastly serviced the roller reefing. This is a mechanism than allows us to roll up the foresail around itself.

It has 40 ball bearings, in two separate compartments, glooped in grease and packed inside a swivelling drum. It looks so innocent, doesn't it?
Getting them out was, sadly, easy. They danced all over the piece of cardboard we wisely put on the ground. Getting them back was, understandly, frustrating.

It required patience, a steady hand, calm head, perseverance and a lot of very thick grease. Lucky, I thought, I'm used to this. Substitute ball bearings for words and I've years of experience at this. Although they didn't have to go in any particular order, just in.

It's the simpliciy of these bits of equipment I love. Like wonderful poems appear simple. This is a seacock It allows water in or out of the boat. They needed greasing too. Lovely conical brass fittings with a small hole in one side to line up with the pipe if you wanted to let water in/out or to turn away from the pipe if not. You might be able to gauge from the picture the tiny space these seacocks are located in. This makes unscrewing tight bolts awkward. If I was lucky I got a quarter turn of the nut before thwacking the spanner against a protruding piece of boat.

Could I stretch it here and make an analogy between this and the rigours of metre? Certainly my focus on keeping the spanner on the nut and inching it minutely round freed me from any "fetters of myself" for at least an hour (per seacock).

Constraint is good, sometimes. It forces new angles, requires flexibility, and, on completion, provides a huge rushing expanse of achievement. Yes, this, too is a poem. I have missed their short lines while writing Edith and Marlene.

Maybe this is why I haven't been able to write many poems about the boat or sailing. It'd be like writing about writing. And I hate that.