Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Navvies, Skag Heads and the Ocean

I'm neglecting to blog. When I have things to do and I'm away and that, I only write in a notebook. If my notebook could connect to the world wide web... well I'd get rid of it. That's why I carry a pad made of paper not apples.

I have been to Plymouth this week, but more on that later. I've also been to Brighton. I had a lovely morning on the beach today, the sun was blazing through a gentle breeze, the sea was blue like in the postcards and I had 45 minutes to kill. I was planning on finishing my book but as I lay on the pebbles staring out to sea, I was overcome by an urge to get in it. I stripped to my waist, emptied my pockets and did the 28 Days Later zombie walk over the stones in my bare feet. At the water's edge I submerged to my ankles and it felt good. The aforementioned urge dragged at my waist and I waded in for a little swim. I felt so free and unencumbered and smug like a big hippy. Quickly I realised it was fucking freezing and that I had to get out immediately or die. So that was that. 

Southern Rail should be commended for cranking up the air-con during the heatwave, but I thought I was going to get pneumonia on the train home. Reet chilly it was.

As I mentioned earlier I went to Plymouth on Thursday. I did a really lovely gig at the Barbican for Apples And Snakes and the whole evening changed my outlook on the town. I'd only ever been there as a disgusting, lairy, snog-hungry drunk of 18 years old. Tea by the harbour hadn't been on my to-do list. So on that note, here's a little story I wrote many moons ago about one of those old trips to Plymouth. It's true.


    Opposite Plymouth University there is a car-park serving a short run of shops and bars. It is situated directly between the University’s lecture halls and its purpose-built student flats, so at certain times of the day large groups of students flow through the area, walking from lessons to their homes.
    It was at one of these times that I was waiting with Tom. We had spent the night drinking in a Plymouth bar and were expecting a lift home. The day was glorious and we chatted through our hangovers, our throbbing foreheads warmed in the sun. We'd not long been talking when our attention was drawn to a group of students crossing the car-park. Both Tom and I were 18, hungover and constantly horny. As half the students were girls, exotic and mysterious older girls at that, our attention was held. We talked to cover our inward drooling, silently thanking the sun for coaxing chests and shoulders into the open air. [We were young. We probably thought objectification meant carving something out of wood. Older, wiser adam.]
   As more students left campus and crossed the concrete, the stream of people widened and took on an almost festive mood. Tom and I remained on the curb, happily chatting and watching the beautiful and 'cool' people. [When you're 18 students are cool.Older grumpier Adam ] Half an hour went by, our testosterone raging throughout, when I noticed a man stood beside us. I alerted Tom to his presence with a glance which was followed by a series of meaningful looks. Neither of us had seen him approach but he stood quite close to Tom. He stared blankly, his chin resting at the base of his neck, his eyes aimed upward at the same current of people we were observing. Despite the heat he wore a full grey tracksuit that was visibly filthy. Without looking towards us he spoke. “I love this time of day”
    His voice was gravelly and sharp and somehow reptilian. The words dragged in his throat, as if pushing through brambles to make the sounds.
    Me and Tom looked at each other, both of us reluctant to reply.
    He turned to us. His face was leathery and pockmarked, the skin discoloured a yellowy brown.“Don’t you love it boys?” His voice crawled.
  We mumbled non committal but affirmative replies.
  “Look at all them peaches.” His gaze moved back to the students.
  We laughed nervously, slightly disturbed at the transparency of our actions and more disturbed at this mans association with us.
 “Mmmm.” He growled as he leered. “I had one the other day.” He looked to us again, waiting on our reactions.
 “Yeah?” Tom’s face was pinched in disdain.
 “Yeah… I had one of them.” The man rolled his face in a wide arc and pointed with his chin at the students.
  We exchanged glances of disbelief. “Really?”
  He was delighted to have our attention. He stepped off the curb and stood in front of us. We were now his audience.
    He had something large stuffed down his tracksuit top which made his upper body seem grossly misshapen. The neckline of his jumper was stretched and we could see the top of his chest. It was the same sickly pallor as his face but flecked red with short, deep scratches. He supported his unseen cargo’s weight with one hand while he gesticulated with the other.
    “Yeeah. She was just like a peach. Hurh. Do you know the fashion boys?” His gaze bounced between our faces. “Do you know the fashion?”
    We didn’t reply. His yellow eyes were triumphant.
   “They shaaave!” As he said these words he thrust his crotch forward, made a fist with his thumb pointed towards the floor and drew it slowly from between his thighs to his stomach. “Yeah, yeah, shave everything. Eeeeverything. Like a peach.” He was shifting from foot to foot, clearly excited by his own story.“Do you know what it’s like boys? Do you know what it’s like?”
    I’m sure that by now both our faces were contorted in disgust but he was either oblivious or did not care. Or perhaps he delighted in our revulsion. He leant forward now, ready to disclose his greatest secret.
    “It’s like when you open a tin of peaches, yeah? A tin. And you’ve got the one little peach on the top, y’ know? And you take your knife. And you cut a tiny slit in it. In the top peach. A tiiiiny slit.” He brought his pinched fingers to the side of his face and ducked his head down slightly, feigning the concentration needed to perform such an operation. “That’s it boys. That’s the fashion.”   

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Lads Mags And Poetry Slams

    Last week I did a couple of little interviews off the back of the National Slam. One was in a rainy cafe in Stokie in which I bumblingly stuttered my way through some really quite interesting questions and the other was simply an email asking my opinions on Slam. The results of these interviews for me, was a realisation that my attitude to 'The Slam' is more complex than I originally thought. I've always known that Slam is a bit of a gimmick. Pitting two poets against each other, then asking an audience to rate them on a numerical scale, is like giving someone a stuffed aubergine then performing a piece of interpretive dance, and having the lucky individual in question decide which was better. Admittedly I would probably go for the stuffed aubergine but some people hate aubergines and love interpretive dance. Heathens maybe, but their opinions are still as valid as yours or mine.

    Last night I read this article about lads mags and their ideal of beauty. http://apps.facebook.com/theguardian/science/the-lay-scientist/2012/may/15/1

I enjoyed the article and I would recommed it. If you've ever even smelt feminism on the wind it won't tell you anything new but it's nice to see something vile get put down articulately. Like seeing a bully get punched by a bigger boy. But punched with words and ideas and all that morale-high-ground good stuff.
'But what on earth has that got to do with poetry slams?!' Don't worry, I am not for one second about to suggest that we can cure women's oppression with poetry or stuffing aubergines. But there is a parallel between my views on Slams or 'Slam Poetry' and the women that appear in FHM, Loaded and their brothers in dross.
    Lads mags select women that 'drive sales'. Gross, but understandable, these magazines are businesses. And in order to drive sales these women need to appeal to as many people as possible, right? So they are selected from the middle ground that lies between the already totally unrealistic sample of actresses, singers, broadcasters etc, that exist in the public eye and are deemed 'sexy'. So the result is an homogenised image of beauty with corset-tight limits on size, shape, colour, style, breast size etc. Not because that's what I want. Or that's what you want. Because that's what everyone wants! The humungous, dribbling, semi-erect-mutant masses have spoken. Or been told. Morons.

    'WHAT IN GOD'S NAME HAS THIS GOT TO DO WITH POETRY SLAMS!' As if you care that much. But I'm getting there. It is my opinion that slams don't really mean a shit. Very often, in my opinion, it is not the best poem or performance that wins a slam. If poets, myself included, enter slams to win and I'm slightly ashamed to say I normally do, then we need to appeal to as many people as possible. To draw the lads mag parallel, points equals sales, our poems are ze women.

    Now I don't think the UK poetry scene is homogenised AT ALL. I think it's delicious. I love it. But there is a certain type of poem that generally wins slams. It's funny, a bit topical, it rhymes, it's funny, it's three minutes long or less, it rhymes, it's funny, it rhymes and it doesn't take itself too seriously. This type of poem seems to most appeal to the largest percentage of people. So to draw the parallel further, the rhymes are the augmented boobies, the jokes are the high bums, the hint of topicality is the stiletto legs, and not taking itself too seriously is the come-to-bed eyes and sense of pre-submission.
   As I was saying, the UK scene is wonderfully varied and has a whole host of distinct and excellent voices. I don't think Slam will erode this. However in America, where Slam poetry is a bigger deal, and winning the Nationals can be a career maker, there seems to be a more singular, standardised voice. This is a bit scary and why my feelings towards Slam are so mixed. Yes, they are a brilliant way of injecting drama and a sense of occasion into what is basically an open mic. Yes, they engage the audience by making them participants in a competition. Yes, they pit poet against poet which is pretty cool in a scene that is generally super-friendly and accepting. But they potentially erode the element of self-expression by coercing a poet to appeal to a general, indistinct mass; The public. In the above article ,Girls on the Net are referenced as describing the lads mag phenomenon as the tedium that comes with consensus. This tedium is far more worrying in the domain of our views on women's bodies. But potentially it could fuck up a poetry scene as well.

    I like stuffed Aubergines and I like interpretive dance. I don't want either of those things to disappear. Slam as a format is awesome, that's a given. If we can retain what it's for and not get carried away, that'd be brilliant. If the slam becomes the be all and end all, we might find poet's voices going the same way as FHM's ladies. A widely-accepted, unchallenging, submissive poem doesn't sound like the kind of poem I want to hear.  

Thursday, 10 May 2012

The Smoking Quandary

    A funny thing just happened to me.

    Having just spent four pounds that I do not have on a pouch of tobacco, and nearly being rumbled trying to steal some eggs, I returned home and happily rolled a cigarette. I then spent quarter of an hour desperately searching for a light. Bear in mind I have stuff to do. I rifled in drawers, scrabbled on my knees under desk and bed and cursed empty matchboxes with a venom I usually reserve for advertising and traffic wardens. Having scraped up twenty pence in my search, I returned to the shops and bought some matches. Now I'm sitting with a rollie, sated but concerned, as ash drops softly onto my keyboard and my lungs protest, that maybe this habit is becoming a problem.
    I have always been a staunch believer in smoking. I enjoy it, I usually smoke between four and six a day, no great shakes in the cancer pool, and I use it productively. 'You use it productively?!' I hear non smoking brains enquire. Or perhaps my own tiny, objective brain-voice is what I'm hearing. But yes, smoking provides moments of respite and focus that often bring with them some form of inspiration or review. If I've been writing for an hour and good things are happening, a cigarette takes me away from the process, allows me the space to return and critique my work. Stepping outside for a fag brings with it a change of scenery, a conversation overheard, a new person to engage, sometimes just that moment of quiet that allows for simple reflection on the day.
    All of these things can be achieved in healthier and cheaper ways, but I love smoking. I love people who smoke, I love smoking with them. I often wish my non-smoker friends smoked. Is this a gang that I've created in my own mind? Is it just my desperate need to find things in common with other humans that powers my vice? I certainly hope not.
    There is a romanticism though, a residue of the iconic smoker, that I'm sure we grip with our stinky fingers. And now that less people seem to be smoking, we're probably gripping that much harder. Every smoker I know thinks about the detrimental effect it has on their health, the money they spend and how stupid they would feel if they got cancer off it. But we enjoy it, and Bob Dylan is fucking cool, Bill Hicks is fucking cool, the kids from Stand By Me are fucking cool. And even if those examples are all iconic, wonderful fatalists, and we are not. And even though they are either 'washed-up' or nutty or dead. And even though they were all sexy whether or not they smoked, their fatalism and charisma rubbed off on cigarettes. It's lame to say but it's true. And that is one of the reasons, I believe, that some non-smokers are such massive douche bags about it. They're jealous. Yeah that's right. Jealous. Jealous of our yellow fingers and puny lung capacities, jealous of our smelly rooms and furry tongues. Jealous of our scrabbling around on ashy floors and eyelashes burnt off the toaster. Jealous.
    Until a generation comes around with more distance from the aformentioned characters, viewing them as historical figures not relevant cultural icons, smoking is going to be cool. I'm OK with that. Smoking forty bensons a day and having skin like crepe paper is never going to be a hot look. The nineties are done and dusted, we're all a bit more health-concious, moderation is fine now. I smoke in moderation and I think I've just talked myself out of trying to quit. I'll probably have a fag as I edit this piece. So I will continue my life as a smoker. I just need to be a bit more dignified in the way I go about it.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Flash Fiction

Do you know what flash fiction is? I thought I did, then I did a bit of research and it seems there is some disagreement about what constitutes 'Flash', concerning word count, format etc. Under 1000 words is what I heard but apparently someone, somewhere, said that 300 is the maximum. It's all pigeonhole bollocks though isn't it? It's like metal heads arguing whether Burzum constitutes NSBM when his guitar tone sounded like a bee not a wasp. Who cares?
'Yeah that's right you Nazi peen, a bee.'

It is my understanding that Flash Fiction is short stories only shorter.

Being a touch compact myself, I have a heightened sensitivity for cool short things and I think short stories are pretty cool. I went to a Flash Fiction workshop run by Femi Martin and she tricked me with her Flash Fiction-voodoo-magic into writing some rather nice stories.

Femi Martin writes and perform Flash Fiction and is grotesquely talented and lovely to boot. She's got a website here www.femimartin.com

Here's one the of things I wrote at Femi's workshop. It's a bit sad. I'll throw another up soon. 


The door to their bedroom is half open and I know they'll recognise my steps on the stairs. I want to go in and speak with them but I'm afraid of what I'll see. I'm afraid of my words sticking or flopping like loosely scrunched paper, somewhere between my mouth and their ears. And they'll look at them, unfolding gradually on the floor, with disdain in their eyes and I will feel foolish, like a smudge or a corner of crust. I dump my luggage and head downstairs, being careful to sound as I normally would. I wonder if the tuna I made on Tuesday's OK, and if I have any bread or salad.