I am quite a cautious person. I like rules. I like to research the rules and then implement them. Teachers love me.
But recently I’ve got bored with that and I’ve done a couple of things on instinct. I’ve enjoyed them and they’ve gone rather well and I’m wondering if it’s time for a new strategy.
The first chance I took was when a friend of mine, the artist Paul Kessling, asked me to write a poem for his short time-lapse film of clouds on two levels going in different directions. The film was shot in the Republic of Ireland looking over Balinskelligs Bay towards the mountains over Waterville. He felt he needed sound to make it a complete piece. He’d tried music but that didn’t work for him so he’d thought of poetry, and me. (Yes that’s the sound of me dancing for joy in cloppety shoes.)
This was like a shot of adrenaline.
I looked at the film and came up with a poem interpreting the shapes. He knocked it back. He was kind, but he asked if I could do something with a more ‘mesmeric’ effect.
This flummoxed me a bit so I did nothing for a week or so. Then I realised the deadline was looming so I panicked.
Eventually I understood that my interpretation of the film, while valid, shut down everyone else’s. It was something like the effect of a TV version of a favourite book. You lose all your own images of the characters in the book as soon as you see the cast. I can never see Elizabeth Bennet the way I used to see her. She is now Jennifer Ehle, beautiful, but not mine.
So I realised that I couldn’t respond to the film with meaning. Somewhat stumped, and casting around for a way forward, I decided to try something I’ve not tried before, I decided to try sound.
For a while I simply tried to think of sounds which I thought fitted the motion of the clouds in the film. (This is one of the things I love about poetry. How absurd and luxurious is it to spend time wondering if it’s possible for words to mimic clouds moving?) I thought a lot about the ends of words. I wanted words that didn’t end cleanly, reflecting the way clouds break up and merge messily.
I wrote lists of words which use my chosen sounds and then arranged the words into lines without much thought for sense. (At the time I thought I was making quite arbitrary choices, although I did edit a bit. But I didn’t edit that much and when I tried to refine the technique and change the poem, it didn’t work at all.)
Paul liked the new poem. He added it as a sort of soundtrack to his film and I thank him for that. Not only is it a huge compliment from an artist I respect but also it was a gigantic technical pain in the arse which took hours that he really didn’t have and won’t get back.
I have never worked this way before and so it’s a surprise to me that this is my most successful, or most widely broadcast, work to date. Paul showed the film at the private view of his current exhibition and he says it was well-received. I was delighted, and flattered, to be included in his beautiful show which I recommend to all of you.
Here’s what he made with his pictures and my words.
The second chance I took recently was reading at the Wantage (not just) Betjeman Literary Festival in their local poets slot with my poetry posse ‘Ready Salted’ (me, Nicola May and Sarah Watkinson).
This was a much more intimidating event than anything I’ve done before as it was not an audience of my family and friends, but mainly of other people’s family and friends, none of who I knew.
I know I should have been nervous about reading my work, but actually I wasn’t. Or I wasn’t nearly as nervous about my poetry as I was about my introductory jokes. I desperately wanted a few laughs and was stupidly delighted when people kindly did chuckle. After that the poetry was a doddle, except that I haven’t worked out how to breathe when I’m nervous and tensed up.
I am deeply grateful to the organisers of the Festival for giving us the slot. There are a few more events left before the Festival ends and I urge everyone to have a look at the remaining line-up here. I’ve been to several events over the last week and loved them all, especially Ros Barber reading from her fabulous Marlowe Papers and Christopher Reid reading from his new collection ‘Nonsense’.
It’s been exciting.
Note to self: try more new things, take risks.
Note to teachers: be afraid.