Wendy Cope said in a Q&A a few years ago that she now only writes a handful of poems a year. These days she can tell at the start of an idea whether it will make a really good poem or not. She seems to be jealously guarding her reputation from accusations of diminution in quality in old age. I sympathized, but felt sorry for the rejects I would never get to read.
All writers have an internal quality filter, though mine used to be pretty nonselective: I wrote for my own amusement and that of my acquaintances, and I let online editors decide if any of it was worth showing on a screen. But now I face a quandary, because I’ve broken into a prominent print literary journal, The Dark Horse http://www.thedarkhorsemagazine.com/. While these poems will probably be read by more people than usual whom I have heard of, they will probably be read by fewer people I actually know. They would need to get a physical copy of the journal, either from the website, from a library, or borrowed from me or another subscriber. It isn’t on Amazon and I doubt many bookstores carry it. Almost everything else I have published is available onscreen at the click of a mouse.
Don Marquis said, “Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.” But what sort of echo am I even looking for? Do I want to establish a serious literary reputation or do I want to entertain my friends? Things written for the latter can be counter-productive for the former. The only things I have written that were good enough for serious print journals were the product of unusual flashes of inspiration. Do I wait for those, as Wendy Cope now seems to? Or do I plod away at exercises and follow prompts from The Spectator in the hopes that something can be eventually be polished to be good enough?
Editors of print journals have always acted as a quality filter for the readers: available content was limited to what they thought was worth reading. Now everything is online so we can judge for ourselves – but where do we even start? This affects science and journalism as well as the arts: the whole publishing industry seems to be going through a crisis at the moment. If the audience for printed media is disappearing, then how can it survive? Gerry Cambridge, the editor of The Dark Horse, darkly advised me to cash my honorarium cheque quickly.
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.
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?
So my 2 closest childhood friendships both tailed off when I was about 10. What next? I don’t remember the chain of events very clearly, but I spent some time around then unsuccessfully trying to re-integrate into the clique of sporty normal girls I had hung out with before Phadette. We got along OK on scout outings and so on, but we were never really on the same wavelength. I also spent some time with a new girl, Joy, before she dropped me for the Normals, managing better than I had to assimilate. I seem to remember there was an actual recess club formed which I was blackballed from joining.
The gang where I ended up instead centred around Lori, a fanatic fan of the rock band Kiss. She assigned us each a persona from the band. She was the lead singer of course (Paul Stanley), and I ended up the drummer who wore makeup like a cat (Peter Criss). I had zero interest in their music, but I liked Lori’s cool outsider vibe so went along with her fan girldom. We made an animated music video of little blob creatures wearing the character makeup, which lasted about 10 seconds because we didn’t fully understand the frames per second requirement of animation.
And we wrote silly parodies of their songs. I can’t remember how this started, but it presumably grew out of my book of doggerel written that year, for which Lori drew some of the illustrations. All I can remember now is a few titles: “Detroit, Rock City” became “Pompeii, Rock City”; “I Stole Your Love” became “I Stole Your Fries” after a McDonald’s ad of the time. I think eventually a big stack of these song lyrics was sent to the band, but if Lori ever received a reply, I don’t remember what it said.
The friendship with Lori ended badly. In our first year of junior high, we didn’t have any classes in common. I made a few friends — one quite good friend sitting next to me in several classes due to alphabetic proximity of our surnames. We would pass notes and giggle and have a great time. Then I introduced them, we became a close-knit group of friends, and some months later they turned on me and pushed me out. It soured me on relationships with girls, and I never had another close female friend until college. I preferred the company of boys and dogs. More on that later, perhaps.
It’s easy to blame one’s parents for teaching emotional distance, but my early friendships all taught me that there were parts of my friends’ lives where I was unwelcome. At least the first two could be put down to differences in age and race.
Now all that UK Parliamentary unpleasantness is behind us, let’s turn our attention to a more fun election. The next Oxford Professor of Poetry will be chosen by a vote of graduates of the university. Information about the position, how to register and cast your vote, and statements from the nominees, can be found here: http://www.ox.ac.uk/about/oxford-people/professor-of-poetry
Sadly I’m ineligible to vote in elections at The Other Place (I studied at Cambridge), but that doesn’t stop me from having an opinion. AE Stallings is my favourite living poet: a master both of ancient forms and modern colloquial speech, with great insight into the human condition. She is also a talented and passionate teacher of poetry. I was lucky enough to take a workshop with her last summer in West Chester PA, and was enlightened and entertained in equal measure.
There’s a great (if outdated) interview with Alicia here: http://www.cortlandreview.com/issue/19/stallings19.html
And you can keep up with the campaign on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/aestallingsforoxfordpop?fref=nf&pnref=story
If Oxford choose her, they won’t regret it. My only reservation is that, being The Other Place, they don’t deserve her.
IF Rudyard Kipling were alive today and asked to write an endorsement for one of the parties in today’s General Election, it might have gone nothing like this:
If you want subsidies on moustache wax,
and (crucially) to force HMRC
to give us nectar points for paying tax;
If you’d relocate Nessie to the Lea,
and Parliament itself to Wormwood Scrubs
to minimize MPs’ commuting times;
If you want rickshaw toilets outside pubs
and all towns twinned with ones in warmer climes;
If you think leap years ought to be augmented
by years devoted to jumps, skips, and hops,
and sex with vegetables could be prevented
by new food safety labels in the shops;
If ‘transportation’ means a Real Ale Train
and trans-galactic space port (maybe two);
If UKIP seem a teensy bit too sane;
the Monster Raving Loonies are for you.
At lunch a while back we were discussing a colleague who had joined a chorus in retirement, and my friend said she couldn’t fathom what could possibly make a grown man want to perform in public. Children, OK, they wanted to please their parents and it’s an accepted part of education, but why would anyone choose to put himself through that as an adult?
Needless to say, she herself avoids giving the scientific talks that I frequently have to do: it is (just) possible to conduct a career in science in the shadows as she does. And I admit I share some of her dread of public speaking, although these days it goes well for me more often than not.
But I think I do understand the attraction to stages as well as the fright. My best performance experiences have been musical: I played the flute quite well in school, and enjoyed playing in bands and orchestras and (sometimes) as a soloist. When a performance is going well, everything falls into place, and the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It’s like flying: there’s a glorious surge of confidence as you ride that thermal up and up and up. Sharing that joy with a crowd heightens the experience.
A bad performance is like falling – or worse, it’s that extended moment when Wile E. Coyote runs off a cliff and hangs suspended in the air, frantically pumping his arms and legs in an effort to stay airborne.
So what determines how a performance will go? How do you know before you throw yourself off that cliff? Preparation is probably most of it – practicing a piece of music until you know it inside out, for example; although with a talk, that can make it sound too static and stiff. A certain freedom and confidence to have fun with the material and improvise a bit is important for speaking and probably for most arts as well. Even with music, if it’s a solo there are opportunities to be a bit free with cadenzas etc, and do it very slightly differently each time. That ensures you keep up your own interest as well as the audience’s.
But some days are just bad days to perform. Psychological factors are key; and if you’re anything like me, physical factors have a big influence on the psychology. If I haven’t slept properly, or have a cold, or my hormones decide to have a parade, then my head just isn’t in the game. Probably there are strategies to overcome that – sports psychology is a big field, and there are a lot of similarities to performing in other arenas. My guess is this is what separates the really great performers from the people who just get by: their ACME gliders have a backup engine for when the thermals let them down.