Saturday, 17 February 2018

Here's One For The Archives

For the last couple of days I’ve been doing something I said I’d probably never do, something I long derided, even used as a short-hand for a certain type of moral and intellectual bankruptcy, and right now I can’t see me ever stopping. Chances are very good you’ll never bear witness to it.

Some background: A couple of weeks ago I. Wait. Okay, back in March last year, I. Hmm. No.

Right. Late September 2016 it started to become clear that the bad laryngitis and the terrifying moments of stopping breathing every time I slept wasn’t going away anytime soon and, quite frankly, I could probably have coped with the sleep deprivation, but, as the months went on, not being able to speak, let alone sing, properly started to fray my sanity.

After the HILARIOUS cancer scare (“Oh, that was just a clerical error!” Riiiight...), and a growing understanding of how to manage the underlying problem, my voice started to crawl back. I was underweight, quiet, squeaky, and in a permanent fog of tiredness, like a ultra-depressing throwback to my teenage years, but I was able to walk without having to stop and cough every ten paces, and I’d even got back on the bike by mid-March.

Then I see a casual acquaintance on Facebook on the lookout for voice artists - especially if they’re not male, middle-class, or English. They definitely had a surfeit of those, thanks. One of my burgeoning career paths, the long-dreamt-of step into narration work, had been scythed out from under me in the autumn, so I thought: let’s play them my Audible showreel, and see what they think.

A driech Saturday in March comes and I’m buzzed into a building where I’ll stand in a darkened corridor, walls wrapped in a menacing shade of insulating material, and make a recording of what was supposed to be a one-off character slot for Rusty Quill’s The Magnus Archives. Just to make things more “interesting” for myself, I decided to go with a flat Cardiff accent, which actually worked out quite well in combination with the laryngitic rasp, for this hard-arsed police detective character (even though I had to channel a combination of my school bullies and my dad to get there). It was fun, it turns out I read the “statement” part well and accurately (and could just about manage the small bit of acting dialogue either side of the storytelling element), and then I went home, curiously uplifted.

After the episode went out I got asked back to reprise the character, who was now to develop a bit of an arc. By this point I’d got enough of a voice back to feel I made a better fist of it, and had to do more Actual Acting, which turns out to be fucking difficult. Who knew. But I think I’m starting to get the hang of it, a few sessions down the line.

Following their social media output, I discovered that, not only do they have a large, appropriately obsessive following, but many of the fans write fanfic. Like: a lot of it. The (apparently) least distressing selection lives, again appropriately enough, in Archive of Our Own (aka AO3), a place where I’ve rediscovered my love for well-written transformative fiction, while avoiding the hell out of anything to do with the fandom I’ve somehow found myself a peripheral part of (okay, fine: I read two pieces, neither of them in any way sexual, in which my character threatens/ beats the shit out of/ stabs people; seems legit).

I am, you see, as big a hypocrite as the next person - I’ve enjoyed all sorts of original erotic fiction/ slashfic/ fanfic, the latter mostly based in the Whedonverse, over the years, but have been known to use the word “fanfic” as a shorthand, derogatory term for derivative writing, occasionally wondering why some of the people producing such frankly breathtaking work online, for free, weren’t using their talents to create, you know, original characters.

See, I definitely thought (and think) that there’s a massive place for written erotica - queer erotica helped me come to terms with my sexuality, and it being online means that there was nothing for my mother to find (although that did mean I had to read it all on university computers - I’m old, remember), for example. And it’s a place to channel things that are unethical, illegal, and frankly downright impossible. I’ve heard some fairly compelling anecdotal evidence to say that getting the more dubious stuff off your chest in virtual terms sublimates the need to carry things over into real life. (Of course, it’s quite difficult to find a genetically modified, flying version of your own arse who wants to do you so...)

And yet, from trying to pop off like a Rentaghost as a five-year-old, to the time in my teens I dreamed I was Doctor Watson, through the time I wrote an undying time-traveller into the Trojan War (again in my teens), to every time (arguably), I write a showpoem reimagining mythological/ historical/ fictive characters, I have been engaging in transformative writing. Hell, Shakespeare and Marlowe did it. Matthew Bourne does it. Angela Carter did a lot of it. Patience Agbabi, Kate Tempest, Hilary Mantel, Jeanette Winterson, Alan Moore, Salman Rushdi, Tarrell Alvin McRaney, Neil Gaiman, Nnedi Okorafor, Ben Okri, and Margaret Atwood have all made moolah and reputations from it. George Lucas definitely did it. And, of course, if Joseph Campbell is right, we’ve only got a small handful of constantly recycled stories between us anyway.

Enough warm-up, Fay - tell us why you’ve got us here...

Fine. So, I have several writing projects that are currently on hiatus - most notably a commissioned poem that is about five months overdue (I’m so sorry), and a novel that I started last year while near-mute, which keeps growing, shows no signs of stopping, and is still at least 30% shy of completed. I have created nothing new except pieces in workshops and the odd new-poem-made-of-everyone-who’s-performed thing since August. In other words: if it’s planned, it’s not turning up. Argh.

Get on with it.

(Thanks for your patience so far!) Anyway, seemingly out of nowhere, on Wednesday this week, I picked up my laptop and started to write a wildly explicit bit of slashfic featuring characters from a piece of mainstream media. Within two days it had turned into eight short chapters of raw angst and filth which I posted, pretty much as I finished them, with minimal editing, onto AO3.

Within minutes of the first chapter going up, I had people I’d never met before reading and offering “kudos”, the platform’s “like” of choice. 48 hours later, and it has 375 hits (which I have to assume doesn’t translate to 375 people), a handful of kudos, and a scattering of complimentary comments (the person suggesting it needed a government health warning was a particular favourite).

I am, I have to say, feeling a little giddy (and mildly conflicted) about this. But we must analyse new experiences if we’re to learn and grow from them, so, what have I learned?

1. I can churn out what essentially amounts to a long short story (7135 words), with plot, development, structure, action, dialogue, and stuff, in less than two days.

2. When you have pre-created characters and worlds, all you have to do is a wee bit of tweaking, and their story is there. Everyone reading it knows the background, so there’s no mileage in world-building and exposition. (No-one wants to read 43 pages about Hobbit history, do they? Do they...?!)

3. I am a filthy, filthy bastard (mind: I’ve seen some of the tags on a bunch of these works, a set of rather hefty trigger warnings left, right, and centre - turns out I’m a filthy bastard who has strong preferences for consensual, safe(ish), adult, human encounters, and I’m good with that).

4. The dopamine rush from a stranger begging you to add chapters and end their torment is quite extraordinary. And apt, obviously.

5. There is something frankly liberating about being Not Yourself. It’s a long time since I’ve written under a pseudonym, and moving out from under it was liberating then, but this is something else now.

6. My poetry blog posts, and this one, easily garner 100-odd views these days, and I’m happy with that baseline. (Listen: I know where I stand in the poetry rankings of the world.) My most popular entry on any of my blogs ever topped 1400 views, but that was over the course of 20 months and, now I come to think of it, is actually a transformative piece (satire counts, right?). Hah! :D

Contrast this: within 48 hours I had over 300 views of this one work. If I’m after an easy fix on approbation, this has some quality juice to offer. (Yeah, I am aware of how that sounds...)

7. I am now really excited about writing prose again. Like: really excited. And yes: some of it is going to be fan/ slash fiction (see points 2, 3, 4 and 5 above), but I think the characters from the dusty novel can finally stop poking me in the head and making a variety of disappointed faces when I say “maybe later” (sorry, kids).

8. I don’t really write straight prose anymore. This last two days I watched myself changing words because they would sound better, have more rhythm, play with internal rhyme. Thanks, performance poetry - I’m going to be writing on a slant for the rest of my life.

So, that’s it, really. I’ve been dying to tell someone, so I’m glad it could be you. Thanks for listening.

(What’s that? A link to the work? Ah. No. No, I don’t think so, do you? I mean, you know: not yet...)

Friday, 21 April 2017

Promises, promises... #saboteur17 #theselkie

So, a few weeks ago I posted that my solo show, The Selkie, was eligible to be nominated for a Saboteur Award this year. I rashly promised to film me running around and around my garden like an over-excited toddler should the show be nominated.

The show was only bloody shortlisted.

So yeah. Now you can vote for it to win, should you wish. Frankly, all of the shortlisted shows are either by me or by people who I like/ admire (mostly both), so I will be chuffed whoever wins (though, obviously, slightly more chuffed, and definitely more manic, if mine wins).

And here’s the video, filmed after work (hence the security badge) and by the expedient of propping my phone on a chair on a table in my garden (hence my head being partially severed). You asked for it. Here it is:

Friday, 14 April 2017

It's a kind of magic… #napowrimo

So, halfway through Napowrimo/ Glopowrimo, and I’m actually on track. I accidentally wrote two poems on the first day, set the second one to go live on day two, and have followed that pattern obsessively so far. Ironically, knowing that I always have a poem in hand and could chill out if I wanted to has kept me on the straight and narrow. Very confusing – welcome to my brain.

Tonight’s poem (which will become tomorrow’s, of course) appears to be a new form. I was trying to find the name of (and rules for) the poem form where you reduce the number of words in each line until it’s down to one. Couldn’t easily, and then gave up as a new idea formed.

For Reasons, my prompt for myself tonight was “Abracadabra”. I remembered that people used to make the word into a protective/ healing charm, in triangle form, reducing the word by a letter each time:

Abracadabra has eleven letters, so I reckoned: eleven lines, first line has eleven syllables, the next ten, and so on until you have a one-syllable line to finish. A cursory search of The Internets has not, so far, shown me that this is a thing already, though I’m very happy to be corrected if I’m wrong…! ☺

Until or unless someone can tell me it’s called something else, I’m going to christen this take on another form The Abracadabra, and you’re welcome to do whatever you like with it.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Tooling Up - #napowrimo, #saboteur17, and stuff

It’s been a long few months, but, with the sunshine and all of that stuff, I finally feel like I’m turning a corner.

My health is (slowly - so slowly) improving, and my voice appears to be returning to something like its original mellifluousness. This will be a relief to everyone, I’m sure (though most of all for the people who’ve had to listen to me squeak and grate and despair about laryngitis as the days turned into weeks turned into months).

The opportunity for Something Exciting turned up recently. I won’t know for two months whether I’ve been successful, but it’s been an amazing opportunity to review what I’ve done with poetry and other artforms and poets and other artists over the last few years, and it turns out that it’s a great deal, and some of it brilliant. So I now have a nice, portable poetry CV to hand and plenty of buzzphrases about my “practice” to recycle for other opportunities.

In the meantime, NaPoWriMo approacheth, and I’m feeling pretty confident about it this time. Since I lost all momentum on getting The Selkie any further after Edinburgh (did I mention I lost my voice - I feel sure I must have done...), I’ve decided to deliberately give it (and my vocal chords) a further rest before trotting it out to other places next year. Since I spent an enormous quantity of energy on The Selkie last year, my NaPoWriMo efforts definitely suffered. You can follow what I post publicly here.

In the meantime, though, if you liked it, you can nominate it for a Saboteur Award and frankly I would just explode with excitement if it made the shortlist (let alone won), so if seeing a grown woman run around and around her kitchen/ garden (depending on weather) like a hyperactive five-year-old is your idea of a reward, I will totally film that if I get shortlisted. Get clicking.
For other entries, you should also consider nominating Allographic Open Mic/ Hammer & Tongue Cambridge for best regular show, Haiku To F*ck To (Spark The Words)/ In Other Words Anthology 2016 for best anthology, Poetry & Piano (Matt Widgery accompanying Nikki MarroneUppahar Ups Subba, and Tim Knight) for best collaboration, Bunbury Magazine/ The Fenland Reed for best magazine, SHINPRINT (publishing arm of SHINDIG) for most innovative publisher, Knots & Branches (Stewart Carswell)/ Years Ago You Coloured Me (J.S.Watts) for best single collection. In Other Words would love your vote for Best Wildcard... 
My choices are arbitrary and personal and partly to do with who I think needs the kind of boost that a Saboteur Award would bring. I'm bound to have missed someone. I'm sorry.
Best solo artist is a terrifyingly open field. PM me if you want a suggestion to fit your tastes... 

Thursday, 9 February 2017

The commercial debate rumbles on...

So, it seems that people on the spoken word scene are still upset about the Nationwide adverts, and the Jeep advert, and presumably the jeans advert and the cheese adverts and the MacDonalds adverts all using poetry/ spoken word to sell product. This seems to be this season’s visit to Buckingham Palace*.

Just now pitching in: Luke Wright with a poem-to-camera in his car on the subject.

There appear to be two viewpoints contending for people’s hearts and minds here.

On the one hand: the notion that using art to promote commercialism is anathema and offensively soulless. The strong feeling that doing this diminishes the form and not only the individual artists involved but all practitioners of the artform.

On the other: the notion that most advertising (and ALL TV advertising) uses art in some way or other (from the music to the animations to the cinematography to the acting to the you-name-it). That art is intrinsically bound up in the commercial, because we live in a capitalist society and people need food to eat, clothe themselves, enjoy permanent shelter. Some selling-out or other is inevitable. There is always compromise.

So where do you draw the line? And that’s a genuine question, artists and non-artists alike: where should we be drawing the line to retain enough dignity (if that’s the word I want) and still pay the bills? Because there’s always someone paying for the art you produce, whether it’s you, your partner(s), your parent(s), your school, your workplace, direct individual customers, or the taxpayers whose money goes into national arts funding, or commercial organisations giving a fee.

Every time I write a poem for #PoetryToGo, I compromise my taste and vision for the requirements of the person holding the fiver (or whatever), whether it’s to rhyme, talk about fluffy bunnies, or turn it around in the timescale they’ve requested. On the other hand, I’d never write a poem for BP, or the Tories. About, yes; on their behalf, no.

What I’m saying, if I’m saying anything, is that there are financial realities and status frailties that drive people (some with more inner conflict than others) to produce art for corporate entities, but them doing so does not - in my opinion - diminish that artform’s ability to enlighten, transform, communicate, be an extraordinary mirror for the human condition. And it does not automatically diminish their previous work or the work they may choose to do in the future.

Luke has said that he hasn’t seen “much of a discussion around this on the live poetry scene” and that he wants to “spark a debate”. By contrast, this is something people seem to be talking about a LOT, in my experience - spoken word artists and their enablers alike. Let’s keep this going - is there a solution, a way of resolving this conflict at the heart of the scene, or are we always going to be divided on this (or merely strung out along the spectrum of NEVER to OF COURSE with a bunch of us in between, and most of us longing for the opportunity to at least be asked, because that might well mean we’ve “made it”)?


* A few years ago, a bunch of spoken word artists were invited to visit Buckingham Palace to visit the Queen. Most who were asked went, as far as I know. Some refused. EVERYONE - invited or otherwise - had an opinion.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Poetry Sells…?

So, someone opened the debate again today about performance poets “doing” adverts for large organisations. I suspect that this is what they were talking about: At the time when the adverts in question came out, I was very ill, so let a whole bunch of people fulminating about artists “selling out” slide past my eyes without saying anything. But now I’m feeling better...

I have an opinion about this (of course I do). It goes something like this:

Poetry, as an artform, especially performance poetry, is one that is still low-profile and with a real lack of opportunities to make a career in, full-time. Have talent, work hard, get to the stage where people are willing to pay you, promote you, and tell everyone else that you’re excellent, and you’re faced with dilemmas at several turns. These dilemmas apply, I suspect, to pretty much every artform.

Do any job other than your artform and you’re at risk of being accused (even if only tacitly/ in your own head) of not being a “proper” artist, of diluting, of compromising. So how do you follow your creative path, and make enough money to feed, house, clothe, and transport yourself and your dependents, let alone develop yourself as a human?

If someone is willing to offer decent money for your work in a way that will raise your profile and that of your artform, where you’re not asked to compromise yourself by directly advertising the product at hand, I think that’s a good thing, personally. (It’s also worth bearing in mind: Nationwide are not Barclays, or HSBC, or Lloyds (or Monsanto, or Proctor & Gamble, or Nestlé, etc.). They’re not even a bank. On the Evil Corporations Scale, they’re pretty darned low...)

And, as someone who is still not in a position to leave the dayjob (while simultaneously wondering whether not leaving the day job is the thing that is holding me back from just saying “the fuck with it - let’s just go, commit, be awesome!”), and as someone active in promoting the artform more generally, above and beyond my own practice, I’m pleased to see performance poetry given a mainstream platform in a positive way (how many cheesy stereotypes of shit, pretentious performance poetry have we seen portrayed in mainstream media...?), with an admirable diversity of artists, considering they only picked three.

I remember the artsy, talking-heads Barclays adverts made at the turn of the Century, featuring actors who people accused of “selling out” their indie cred, their otherwise edgy images. One of them was Gary Oldman, who openly discussed how he was willing to make the compromise because the money was going to pay for his outreach programme getting children off the street and into community theatre.

Nationwide were going to make money and produce advertising. I’m glad that they decided to produce sensitive, non-exploitative showcases of artists who are ambassadors for my artform. I’m glad they promoted this notion of performance poets as bard, as voices for the nation. I don’t know the other two artists, but one of them is someone whose work (and work ethic, and politics) I admire and support, and I very much hope she got paid well.

Poets used to make their living from patrons, unless they were independently wealthy. Over the years poets have made their living by writing things other than poetry for other people, teaching, or doing other jobs to keep body and awen together. Arts grants are on the decline, commissions aren’t that easy to find, and not everyone has the time, training, or temperament for teaching. I choose to use my non-creative skills to muster a part-time day job to muster stability for the platform under my creative endeavours. I’m still not sure if I want to make 100% of my income from the creative arts, but I won’t denigrate those who sell their poetry to those with the money to pay for it, especially when these modern-day patrons aren’t particularly evil.

What are your thoughts?

Monday, 23 May 2016

Got Angry, Wrote a Poem

It all started so innocently. I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, when this popped up, courtesy of Hannah Elwick, who ripped it a new one, displaying maximum sarcasm.

“This” (in case you can’t see it via the link above) was a glurgy piece of nostalgia porn misogyny masquerading as poetry.  My emotions shifted through ennui to rage to disgust (and not just because of the font used) pretty quickly, briefly eased by Hannah’s magnificent rant against it.

But this is me, and it was lunchtime, so: riposte poem time:

Text version:

A Poem To Which I Can Relate

I remember the corned beef of my Childhood,
And the bread that we cut with a knife,
When the Children helped with the housework,
And the men went to work not the wife.
The cheese never needed a fridge,
And the bread was so crusty and hot,
The Children were seldom unhappy,
And the Wife was content with her lot.

I remember the milk from the bottle,
With the yummy cream on the top,
Our dinner came hot from the oven,
And not from a freezer; or shop.
The kids were a lot more contented,
They didn’t need money for kicks,
Just a game with their friends in the road,
And sometimes the Saturday flicks.
I remember the slap on my backside,
And the taste of soap if I swore
Anorexia and diets weren’t heard of
And we hadn’t much choice what we wore.

Do you think that bruised our ego?
Or our initiative was destroyed?
We ate what was put on the table
And I think life was better enjoyed.

Author Unknown
A Poem To Which WE Can Relate

artwork by Eddie Holly

We remember the old beef of Childhood,
The silence that cut like a knife
Where Children were seen and not heard
And blows clamped down marital strife
The Wife could not claim her possessions,
Worked for nothing in kitchen and bed;
The Children were gifted this vision:
That’s your future until you are dead.

We remember the Childhood diseases
That took all but lucky or strong
Darwinianism in action
And no-one to challenge our wrongs.
We gazed at the chasm dividing
The have-nots from those haves who strode
Over huge tracts of land that were paid for
By theft, tax, and History’s goad.

Those who were beaten learned nothing
Except how to govern by fear
Girls were pressed into corsets and wasted away
You won’t learn if you don’t try to hear

The privileged never do question
From whence comes their food and their board
You whine incognito as we change the world
With your death rattle justly ignored.

Fay Roberts

The beautiful picture of Ruby Rose in the Westinghouse style was created by the ridiculously talented Eddie Holly.

Feel free to share if you like. A surprising number of people already have, which both weirds me out and gratifies me (yay! imposter syndrome!), and the original Facebook version is here.

UPDATE: Bloody hell - there's a longer version. Turns out the ... bit in the one to which I responded is to indicate where there were more lines, but the perpetrator pinched them out in order to be able to fit the meat of the “poem” on a single side of A4.