Sunday, 4 October 2020

Once More

I was asked to perform as the poet for Sunday Assembly (the well-known secular Sunday gathering), 4-Oct-20, the theme for which was “A Whole New World: Lessons We Learn from Musical Theatre”. Being me, I abruptly decided the day before that I was going to write a whole new piece. (I keep doing this; I may need to have a word with myself.)

Anyway, I asked people in various places what they learned from musicals, they came through in style, on Twitter, discord, and Facebook, and here is the result (video and text below, with my part starting around 20:00):

Once More

Or: What I learned from what people learned from musicals – a crowdsourced poem.

Meine Dammen und Herren!
Mesdames et Messieurs!
Ladies and Gentlemen!
Are you ready to learn what I’ve learned?
It’s a whole new world…
A strange journey…
And I see you tremble with antici…
pation. The creation of a musical microcosm
Of reality can be costly, but don’t worry –
I’ll be gentle. You ain’t never had a friend like me.


“And I know things now,
“Many valuable things
“That I hadn’t known before!”
And a score of reminders of discoveries,
In theatres or bundled up on sofa’d sick days,
Uncovering the array of
Human experience,
Peeled down to what can be delivered
At half the pace of human speech
Over a couple of hours, with interval.

“You don’t have to sit around complaining
’bout the way your life has wound up…”
But you can turn it into song,
Invite the world to sing along,
And maybe, at the end, you’ll feel much better
Well, connected, anyway,
And you may walk away with the impression
That ethical standards can be predicted
By vocal pitch and the presence of syncopation,
But baby, real villains don’t come accompanied
With percussive warning labels.

“But the tigers come at night,
“With their voices soft as thunder,”
And I understand more about
Found family (“you’re a Jet all the way”)
And how selling your soul (and hair, and teeth)
For safety’s a shorter-term solution
Than you might believe.
And that if you don’t say (or sing)
What you mean soon, it can be too late.
(And what a great waste of plant food
An abusive dentist makes.)

I’ve learned that “525,600 minutes”
Is shorter than you’d think
(For all it’s been a long year),
But we can cheer the facts of Hamilton’s 51 essays,
The way everything ain’t free in America,
Prickly pears are best picked pawless,
Opium wars were fought for awful causes,
The poor should pick a pocket or two,
And how (in just seven days)
He’ll make a man out of you.

And “I’m glad we’ve got this new technology!”
For seeing each other with the world locked,
Instead of jockeying for toilet roll,
We can stay home to sing along,
Not forgetting that
“Tomorrow belongs to me!”
Because not everyone who summons good intent is
Bent on the same values as you and frankly?
Nazis are everywhere in musicals too,
A true reflection of what might beset us
If we forget whose money makes the world go around…

“You’ve got to be carefully taught”
Because the more fraught messages,
Can fling up defences, but picket fenced
And bathed in tunes from dapper gents
And sassy dames
They can ring, unregarded but working
Miracles under the skin,
Buried deep in synapses that are slowly forming 
Brand new chains of meaning,
As catchy repetition literally changes your mind.

“Do you hear the people sing?”
Because the support of chorus
Is glorious, and we adore
Syncretic miracles weaving
Street sweepers and aristocracy
In high kicks and pretty harmonies.
But more than this, she tells me:
“It isn’t for the few to tell the many
What to do,” and we should choose
Which songs to sing, with whom.

“Consider yourself at home!”
Because no-one doesn’t have a place
In musicals. Can’t sing?
Here’s a comic role.
Can’t dance? Says who?!
But anyway, it’s overrated,
See, there’s oh so much you can do
Beyond the stage to make
The glitter linger longer
In people’s glee-starved souls.

“They had it coming!” apparently:
I’ve been handed horror stories of
All the incautious directors of musicals
Who neglect to check their props,
Stock up on body mic batteries
Flatter the pianist appropriately or
(Oh dear) let the band attend the bar
Beforehand. And oh, it’s messy,
But the show goes on.

And now it’s “Midnight!” (like, I literally wrote this line at midnight and couldn’t have been more delighted – yes, I need to get a life, or maybe just outside) and I need to find
An ending to this piece,
A triumphal closing chord
To call this to a halt,
And all while finding time to tell you
That it doesn’t matter that neither elephants
Nor jazz hands can make you fly,
But that life is also the song you sing in fits and starts:
Between the mundane, the joy;
Between the admin, the applause;
Between the tragedy, the soaring choruses;
And that some of these are the same things.

“It’s a hard-knock life!”
It’s true, and you could dismiss this as
Bread and circuses but for the subversive messages
Served up as hope, that “Singin’ in the rain”
Is sometimes the best way to make the most
Of things when times are tough
And that, if the chorus is large enough,
Its harmonies can overwhelm the best-laid plans
Of even the greatest single orchestrators.
“You choose.”
“What adventures we're going to have together!”

Meine Dammen und Herren!
Mesdames et Messieurs!
Ladies and Gentlemen!
Where are your troubles now?
Forgotten? I told you so…
We have no troubles here.
Here, life is beautiful.
Auf Wiedersehn!
A bientot!

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Lifting Jörmungandr

Today is difficult.

Send water
Send the sea
Send endless, sea-washed sand
Send ssshhhhssssshhhhhhhhhh…
Send the seawind on my face
Send the nighttime quiet, strengthening seawind
Send hearing for miles of nothing but the sea washing, the wind in marram grass.

Today prickles on raw skin.

Send blankets
Send blankness
Send an enveloping closeness
Send still air, warm with only my own breath,
Send only my own body reflected;
Send being bound in a nutshell
Send being master of infinite space
Send a horizon an inch distant.

Today is endless.

Send everything that is Not-This
Just for a span
Send singing waters, clear horizons
Send an airing cupboard with a lock inside
Send boundaries
Send an end.

Please. My skin is filled with wasps.

Do not send me extra things to lift
Even the smallest grain of sand is beyond my strength
And what seems like nothing to shift is huge
What seems like a gift is another burden.
I beg you: send me nothing at all.
Except for silence, and unspeaking love.

Thursday, 21 February 2019

What More Could You Ask?

Context elevates bad experiences,
An enthusiastic homage to… let’s call it eternity,
Mouth moving both ways,
Semicolons inserted for emphasis,
A magical pass.

Stacking words in the way of wisdom,
Kissing a path to memory, curiously lusterless;
Neuralgic nostalgia is a thorny back road,
Unbright, dusty, unPlankian,
And we could tread the purple road bright ahead.

Lock steps into wifery, objecting to
Reflecting one state of womanhood,
Harmonising adroitly into stillness,
Spilling meaning into the gaps between
Have and not.

Begging for scraps of song
Should not be our lot,
Pixelated into endlessly editable scripts,
Charged and charging
Into marked-up pages, endless and ephemeral.

We are leaking nightmares,
Plumbed into history, toxic with possibilities.
We can seize the waters, balancing futures,
Listening to the flood, forgetting pressures,
Stressing old-school remedies. Day after day.

We break down the meaning of names,
Settle liquid scores,
Talk of ambition’s blizzard and
Swing hips in glossy flossing,
Consider pianaoke.

Time to pitch, toned up creatures
Singing myths in the liminal, lurking in
The dark, harking back to when hunting
Meant something other than chasing
Grades and pay checks.

Resentment is a film through which we
Filter memory, waiving the right to our spot,
Clotted with the scents of home and pain.
Do you want the core of the artist, the
Consciousness, unconscionable; bitter and burglarised?

We earn art in the reconstruction,
Cupped in the moment, you, you, U,
Sneezed size breathing salt,
Slapped with sensations, tipped, tripping,
Tricked, cut down to size, a light touch.

We dream of legacies, embedded in larceny,
Rewarding failure, chronicling the
Chronically ironic, chasing the sugar,
Shifting market forces, contorting
Culture into a twist of dough.

We dream of adorning the menu of memory.

Another live-writing exercise, this time celebrating the open mic for Cambridge University's ICE Creative Writing course and their residential module on writing for performance. The same terrifying level of quality as last time I attended this, and another dazzling array of inspirations to draw from. As ever, the temptation to edit (there's some inelegant variation in there!) is high but resisted…

Friday, 1 February 2019

Inside Out

So, because I was in the frame of Say Yes to More Things, I am doing #28sonnetslater. Since, up until now, this has been the sum total of my sonnet-writing, I thought I’d better get some practice in, so as not to shame my fellow sonneteers (it's a word now, shh). I asked my partner for a prompt, and got the film we’d just watched

My mind’s a well-oiled engine, so they say;
There’s no good giving in to wanton ire,
For all the voices clamouring are fey,
Their one true prize to find my life’s desire.

This movie I’ve not seen in four long years
Can always find its way into my heart.
It shows me truth, all hemmed about with fears
That I have given up my rainbow cart.

One cannot live in truth on only joy,
For it’s true madness to be only glad,
And even treasured memories can cloy,
If they’re not leavened by a touch of sad.

And though I may be weeping by the end,
I’ll aim to leave this life my own good friend.

I know it’s flawed, as far as strict form is concerned, and there’s an abominable pun to boot, but it’s a start. Look out for the next one on the proper blog. Unless I get the desire to do more practice (and share it).

(Yes I’m nervous. Shh.)

Thursday, 31 May 2018

We Said This

Suspended in ambience
We applaud wet pages,
Reclaiming acquaintanceship,
Bombing barriers.

Managing mania, we
Fragment stagnation.
Redraw our faces,
Plumbing the depths of desperation,
Reconfiguring the perfect cup of tea.

We see the fleeting,
Invisible in mirrors,
Casting a net of happiness,
Searching for silence –
Twisting in darkened, teasing streets.

We greet the weather – it’s easier –
Eschewing intimacy with coldness,
Picking bigger battles.
Flickering destinations beckon,
Swimming in fantasies of honey-sweet strangeness;
Convoluted, tantalisingly inconclusive,
Listening for friction, infiltrating freedom.

We stage childhood heists,
Pirating reflections of identity,
Shining a dark light on dreams
Of vulnerability,
Spelling out connections,
Budding confidence coming with the dusk.

We open the only locked doors,
Walk in circles, talking truths,
Rebooting veracity with clean slates,
Flushing out scepticism with the
Perfection delineated in differences,
Breaking the bad binds tied by
Cowards digging graves, making
Weakness bleed from unjust wounds.

The long and the short of this is
That obsession is for life;
A deformation devoutly to be wished.
Metaphor melds into the elegance
Of skin, and letters are fetters
Of limbs, and the glitter of
Afterglow owns us,
Marking us with stars as we
Sleep - feral, beautiful, and doomed.

And all this night words
Chain us – willing servants,
Shouldering the burden of
Lucid truths, and we are…

This was another of those tribute poems where I take inspiration from all the artists who perform ahead of me and give them a stanza or so each. I really like doing this – it’s a nice way to say thank you, and also means that I focus on the poetry rather than fretting over my own set. The gig was “That’s What She Said”, run by For Book’s Sake, and the artists were, in order: Carys Hanna, Kia (?), Elysse Adjemon, Marcelle Mateki Akita, Emma McGordon, Alice Short, and FBS founder Jane Bradley. And it was fucking lush.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Bridging Words

(Was asked to perform as a feature at Speakeasy, a Cambridge University slam series. I haven't done a crowdsourced live-write poem in ages. Behold. This was particularly easy, in some ways, as the quality of the slammers was ridiculously good.)

We are a collusion of
Percussive ooze,
Encouraged to fashion
Gratitude and mad grats
Into clicks and pigeonholes

Friendship is cross-stitched,
A work of alchemy and memories,
Creased with intricacies,
Meaning littered into the gaps
We hop across and peer at,
Peripheral visions.

We fill the dark spaces between
With glittering sticky tape,
Better living through chemistry,
Embracing our right to be happy,
Glorious monsters, intertwined
Through all those hungry nights.

We reflect on ourselves, spun sugar arguments,
Consuming ourselves through
Nervous resistance, cold numbers
Drowning in abstract blood,
Summoning the guts to
Stand up against such a summary.

Today is an improvised battle with technology,
Struggling to care through
Solipsistic prisms manifesting in
Silence, the places between words,
Churning familial duties and the need to
Hold hands through the smoke.

We are mapped in fragments,
Coiled in a double-helix of hiraeth,
Bellows of frozen breath,
Optimistic billows of red, sunset litanies
Written into our flesh, rusty and fragile,
Irresistibly strong.

Love is cupped into twelve minute
Segments of looks, words, warm,
Distressing vertigo, tiny death
After tiny death, teetering forever on
Concrete edges, crumbling, rumpled,
Shored up by broken bits of unsaid words.

Guilt is a stained-glass exposė
Of the deconstruction of self,
More-or-less deftly stitched with ripped-up time,
Vacationing in costumes,
Hidden in plain sight,
Skirting the abyss in all of us.

3am chimes a tightrope of teetering meanings,
Gasping for layers,
More than simply okay.
And we drown in the toxin of adrenalin,
Tintinabullation along glittering nerve endings,
Sending us back to speak truth,
Dark words dancing in the spotlight.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Thanks - A Poem (#EdFringe2017)

Walking back home down Leith Street*, I Got Involved and tried to direct an American couple to an eaterie that wasn't closed (as opposed to the one they were trying to get into). They looked confused, told me they didn't understand, and I had to modulate to a slow RP before they got me. As I walked away, the first couple of lines of the poem occurred to me. By the time I got home, I had most of the first two stanzas down and was starting on a third which I promptly forgot (something about renegotiating sunsets, I think) and a fourth which became the beginning of what's now the third. And then, when I got home and started writing it down, it went somewhere completely different... Doubtless it'll evolve again over performances. If I perform it. Hmm... :)

And after I'd had a wee cry, I recorded a version of it here - maybe it'll help someone else as well:


I've been speaking French again
Lending shrugs and stumbling syllables
To the ether,
Tangling the back of my throat into
Friendly growls
Adding an hourglass pinch to familiar vowels.
"Tu me reconnais?"
"Mais, bien sûr, mon ami: voila, c'est Aout,
"Je retour une autre année!"

I've been speaking Scots again,
All glottal stops,
Dialectually exacting,
My mother, God rest her,
Would be ecstatic that so much remains,
Rooted in Liz Lochhead poems
From an early age, Rabbie Burns
Emerging with my England-buried Rs.
My hair reflects my rediscovered roots,
Blooming soft and wide
With birling curls,
Lighter. Enlightened...
Slightly frightening.

I've been swallowing my tongue again,
Humming needs into submission,
A prism of listening,
Delays, fears,
Anxiety like a weight,
The freight of Maybe dragging
Like a gag.
Travel woes and first-time fears,
The year gone, ambitions bitter,
Bitten back, tucked down,
Gullet clutched,
A hobble of mediocrity
While brainweasels gambol, their words
Given free rein:
"Too old"
"Not a commodity"
"Not proper"
"No longer hot property,
"If you ever were…"
"And worse - you're permitted
"Merely for the sake of all the things you do
"That no-one else wants to
"And you, too desperate to belong,
"Too keen to help,
"You people-pleaser
"Trudge, grinning awkwardly, on."

I have been killing weasels again.
Turns out they're blighted by kindness
And company,
And people who hail you in the street,
Smiles lighting their eyes,
And people who want to hold you,
Touch your heart,
Ask after your day's hardness,
And those who wait to walk the long way with you.
They're killed by soft water
And salt water
And tap water
And bottled water,
Drowning in a flail
Because they'll always fail
To seek the higher ground.

Today I have been learning to speak again,
Hear my poor, sore voice as sweet,
Hear it as they hear it,
He hears it,
She hears it.
When it sings,
No longer strangled by
Dangling weights,
Cast free for friendship's sake.
Thank you.

* I get it wrong in the video and say "Leith Walk", which I even knew wasn't right at the time! :)