I love what a melting pot Cambridge is. Recently I was impressing a friend that I still remember the entire vocabulary of Hebrew I picked up from my fellow PhD students in 1990. I’ve no idea how to write the originals, but the English translations are toilet, big dick, and poached eggs. Not sure what sort of holiday in Israel that would give me.
A few days ago there was a Chinese girl behind me on the bus explaining there is no exact translation in Chinese for ‘fuck you’, although they do have ‘fuck your mother’.
The guy told her that was more extreme in English – didn’t they have something a bit milder?
“Well….there is also ‘fuck your sister’. Or ‘fuck your grandmother’. Is that any better?”
No, no, not really.
Unpacking boxes from my last move, I came across the play I wrote in a workshop at university. I didn’t reread the play itself (there’s a limit to my masochism), but I did read the final feedback from the prof: “You write cynicism well – but find it hard to show the idealist/romantic/sincere believer in feelings.”
She was probably right about my play, and I’ve received similar feedback on my poetry. But it struck me that this could almost be a general pronouncement by the Baby Boomers on all of Generation X and Y and Millennials. Sincerity was the sacred cow of the 60s revolution, to the extent that if you weren’t a sincere person you had to pretend to be. It was vitally important to be earnest.
One Sunday some years ago, I almost died. As I lay in casualty, bleeding internally, I pushed aside the oxygen mask to joke to my husband about the catastrophe that had landed me there. Such gallows humour probably seems pathological (and maybe it is). Luckily I married a man much like myself, so he took it well. He helped fill the hours while they prepped theatre and called a surgeon in from the golf course by reading to me from the latest published employment law judgment. I don’t think either of us would have preferred a joint exploration of our feelings at that time.
But Hollywood tells me I am wrong. Movies and novels and plays tell me over and over that problems and griefs need to be discussed openly and sincerely. Maybe humour is an unhealthy defensive reaction in a crisis, but what can I say? It comes naturally to me, and it gets me through. If that is a disorder, I’m not sure I want to be cured of it.
American patriot, master of the atom, scourge of the despot. Such was the self-written epitaph of Charles Montgomery Burns on The Simpsons, but it’s not a bad fit to my father. Edgar Alexander McLean was a nuclear physicist, a veteran of WWII, and a tireless campaigner for the local community. But I think he identified most closely with Homer Simpson, an ordinary Dad just trying to get through his days without screwing things up too badly. He could generally be brought to see the funny side of life, and I have fond childhood memories of laughing with him until we could both hardly breathe over episodes of Fawlty Towers and Monty Python, and more recently The Simpsons. I owe him my sense of humour, along with so many other things.
My latest poem to be published is a modest effort in a forgotten form: a ‘Little Willie’. These are usually 4-8 rhymed lines about children meeting gruesome ends, and they were popular around the turn of the 20th century. What’s not to like?
My sister Susan told me that there would be a feature on them in Light, the top online journal for funny poetry, so I sent a few off and one made the cut. I was especially tickled to find among the other handful of poets in the feature one XJ Kennedy, a leading authority on poetry in general and funny poetry in particular. So my most trivial of poems so far appears in the most august surroundings.
Susan has 2 poems in the feature also. Does it say something about our family that we both enjoy writing about sibling murder?
Hurrah for the return of Light! It was formerly a printed quarterly journal of light verse; now it’s twice a year and free online. The inauguration issue is a doozy, with contributions from Wendy Cope, AE Stallings, and Susan McLean, among others. Check it out! http://lightquarterly.org/revamp/
Hurrah! I made the finals again in the quarterly contest in Lighten Up Online (http://lightenup-online.co.uk). A year ago today my first poem was published there.
I must admit I find writing funny poetry more satisfying as well as more fun than serious poetry. This was always likely to happen. At the start I had some serious stuff to get off my chest, and a few sad things have happened since that called for a serious response, but in general I prefer to be funny when I can. I might even give up the serious stuff entirely.
Of course, that would be the end of any hope to ever get a book published, since the poetry establishment is relentlessly grim in outlook. But it would be absurd for me to approach poetry like a career, when no one makes a living from it anyway. I may as well write to amuse myself. If other people laugh, that’s a bonus.