Monday, 28 January 2013

Making Your Way In The World Today...

As a child-bordering-on-teen, it was my weekly Friday night treat to be allowed to stay up and watch "Cheers". How this routine established itself, and how "Cheers" became a staple part of it, I'm none too sure. The fact that each series seemed to run for something like 22 episodes and they always repeated it doubtless gave the impression that it was a regular weekly event. So I'd sit with some crisps or peanuts and a glass of pop (Ginger Beer, I'll warrant) and watch as Norm, Sam, Cliff and the boys wisecracked their way through another evening in the Boston bar.

And I swear "Cheers" warped my view of the world and my idea of what Friday nights outside on the adult planet were like. I grew up genuinely believing that as soon as I was old enough, I too would venture into the world of pubs and bars and meet regulars who would joke, jostle and share their worries. Some members of my family probably did a lot to cement this idea by feeding me exaggerated stories about their own local drinkeries. The trouble is, it's not like that. Pubs are frequently just pubs, not extensions of your own friendship circle. The good old boys on their barstools have never greeted me enthusiastically as I've entered any pub, and I've never actually chatted to a psychiatrist whilst sitting in one.

The closest I ever came to frequenting a pub on a par with "Cheers" was during the years 1994-1995 in Portsmouth, when I was a regular at "The Old Vic". "The Old Vic" was something of a knackered little institution when we found it, but that's precisely why we loved it - the upstairs room looked as if it hadn't been decorated since 1975, having mosaic mirror tiles all over the walls, a disco ball hanging from the ceiling, lots of twinkling lights, and a bar area straight out of some bachelor pad fantasy from the same decade. They had The Fall and Pulp on the jukebox downstairs, and a jovial landlord who genuinely did seem interested in everyone who frequented his establishment - and that enthusiasm was infectious. A close friend of mine puts his heavy drinking during that same period down to the pub itself. He said that he had never experienced a place in his life where his drink would be poured for him as soon as he walked in through the door, no questions asked, nor somewhere where he would be greeted jovially by the bar staff. And once, when one of my other friends was having a relationship crisis, one of the middle aged barstool proppers patted the unfortunate young man on the back as he walked past, adding that he hoped everything was OK. True, it was none of his business strictly speaking, but it was a well-meaning gesture - infinitely preferable to the ghoulish fascination most bar-room acquaintances seem to have about couples arguing.

We loved the place so much we started hosting poetry nights upstairs (with the mic placed directly beneath the mirror ball, naturally) and so the pub could also rightfully claim to be the place I popped my spoken word cherry, and not The Poetry Cafe as you might have suspected. Sadly, it couldn't last, and it didn't. As wise as the landlord appeared to be, he eventually decided to spruce the place up, and turned the retro-fag-end mess of the upstairs room into an oak pannelled nightmare. It ended up looking like every other modernised pub in the area, and he'd eradicated the very thing that had attracted us there in the first place. Not long after that the ownership changed hands and it became a gay bar - this wouldn't have been a problem, but some of the homophobic locals began hurling bricks through the windows and hassling the clientele, leading to a bunker mentality amongst the new gay regulars. We weren't actually ever asked to leave the place, but after we seemed to spend half our lives trying to get served at the bar one evening, we all got the message and never returned. And anyway, the Fall certainly weren't on the jukebox anymore, and the pub had changed in all but name.

Ever since then, I've drifted from pub to pub. Some have been considerably better than others, but I've never felt the same sense of loyalty or belonging. It seems to me that finding a bar that becomes an extension of your lounge, filled with characters you're genuinely pleased to see, is a rare thing indeed, harder even than finding a really good restaurant (or, dare I say it, a long-term partner). The factors in what makes a pub work are so variable that it only takes one slight change to tilt the whole establishment out of your favour, whether that involves getting rid of your favourite records from the jukebox, or suddenly deciding to screen sport on the television 24/7. Looking back, I think my friend may have been right - a period of heavy drinking while the goodness of "The Old Vic" lasted probably would have been a fantastic idea.  As things stood, it was perhaps enough that it was the first place I performed poetry to an audience - you can't ask for a gentler break than to begin in the place you almost think of as a second home.  

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Joining the Mailing List

Like most writers at the moment, I do have a mailing list in operation to let people know about forthcoming gigs, publications, and magazine/ journal appearances.  It's not particularly intrusive - I try to co-ordinate the mailings so that they only go out when I actually have a few worthy things to announce, rather than every time I breathe/ put pen to paper/ update the blog/ decide to do an open mic.  Only one person has asked to unsubscribe in the last three years, so that's a pretty good sign, isn't it?

Anyway, if you want to join it, please drop me a line here.  Alternatively, of course, you can always comment below with your email address, but I don't advise that as it's likely your details will get harvested by ruthless spammers.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Happy New Ears

I suppose I should admit that 2012 wasn't the most productive of years for me, either in terms of new material or in terms of getting material published or being offered gig slots (one tends to feed the other, after all).  It's been a strange and challenging year where it's possible I neglected the writing and put it to one side purely because there were other worries and concerns in my life, which I don't need to highlight here.

However, so much of this talk is partly me making excuses for myself.  What happened to my writing above all else in 2012 is that I began to actually fear new material.  I spent a disproportionate (though not totally worthless) amount of time re-drafting and re-working existing poetry and short stories in order to avoid the elephant in the room - fresh stuff.  New ideas.  The idea of actually picking up a pen and scribbling something in my notebook became threatening, not only because I was beginning to find standing starts impossible, but also because I had an irrational fear of my own bad poetry.  Had somebody asked me if I'd like to deal with a small room with a wasp in it (my other phobia) or create a poem, there might have been days where I'd have opted for the bloody wasp.

This probably sounds confusing and nonsensical, so let me (try to) explain.  Almost all my first drafts are at the very least mediocre, and usually a lot worse than that.  Poetry for me isn't something that spews its way on to the page and seems strong first time, it's something that requires chiselling, tweaking and sanding down.  My method isn't original and is recommended by numerous writing workshops, but it usually works along these lines - I will draft something, then hide it in my notebook not to be viewed again for at least three months, at which point I'll have a much clearer idea about what I've got to play with.  However, in 2012 I somehow forgot the sheer shocks you sometimes get when you look back again - that poem I was convinced would charm everyone into submission doesn't even seem any good to me anymore, never mind a wider audience.  In places, it's even dreadful.  In short, I had begun to believe the myth that all poetry should seem great or reveal its full promise after its first draft, when what all poetry (or at least most poetry) really needs is focus - the hard yards at the start when an idea first pops into your head, and the slog at the end when it has to be prodded, tested, smoothed over and possibly entirely redrafted in places.  Checking back on old notebooks confirmed this, as I observed substandard poetry on a tatty page being bulked out by different coloured arrows spidering all over the place, red lines, and new sentences and words squeezed in the space available.  I realised that some of my best material had been given the most attention, which sounds rather obvious, but it's easy to forget.  Average poetry, like average songs and average sketches, can be made to be good.

So I've made a New Year's Resolution this year to promise myself to write at least one fresh piece of material a week. It's highly unlikely you'll ever get to see them on this blog in their raw form, since this isn't any kind of public sharing exercise, so you'll have to trust me that it's something I will do.  But if all goes well, and I don't fear my own failings and decide to work on them rather than stare at them in horror, the dividends should be entirely clear in time.  I'm completely determined not to have another half-hearted year in 2013, and yes, stuff has already been written.

I'm also really happy to be able to tell you that I've had a short story accepted for publication by "The Alarmist" magazine, which should hit the shops at the beginning of February.  The website for "The Alarmist" is here, and should hopefully show that they're a very valuable and rare thing in this day and age - that is, a genuinely alternative new literary journal with great artistic design (not the bog-standard columnised Times New Roman on a plain white page across 100 sides format) and a strong distribution.  Like most journals of their ilk, though, they operate on a shoestring and are not presently at the stage where they can afford to pay their writers - but in a move I hope a lot of other editors will consider emulating, they've opted to begin a Kickstarter campaign to ensure that some (or even all) of them get paid.  Please do take a quick look at the details here and have a think about throwing in a few pounds if you feel that way inclined.  I'll update this blog with more details about the story and the magazine soon.

This will be the first short story of mine to be commercially issued, and I'm really excited about this.  On Friday night, a friend of mine laughed when I told him how much trouble I'd had getting my short stories published, and told me that it's easier to get novels approved at the moment, and I probably would have been better off spending the time writing one of those instead.  He's got a point, but hey ho - I can't control the way these ideas materialise.

In other good news, the audience for my other (more widely publicised) music blog "Left and to the Back" remained as strong in 2012 as it had been throughout 2011 and 2010, partly due to publicity in some very unlikely places.  So it's not all idleness and phobias, ladies and gentlemen.  

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

The Vault

I will not reveal the contents,
and there is no answer to the
question of how long it
has been there –
just that I know it exists,
beneath the green
strips of splayed fern
fingers, shielding damp
sealed boxes bursting to
spring, held down by
flesh toned tape.

It is pointless to
talk about money –
the objects are worth
nothing to those
who don’t know me,
who would see only
polystyrene and nylon
bundled between
prefab concrete walls,
relics of a useless

My secrecy has no
rationality, but
I just can’t shake the
feeling that the
fluorescent strip inside
is blinking out, or
that somebody will die
upon their chance entrance,
or I will –
then leave the door
open behind them.
Let everything and
everyone in.