Wednesday 27 July 2022


There's a lot about Florence Nightingale in Derby (her family had a house there) but she's not the only famous female with a Derby connection.

This is Amen Alley, one of the narrowest roads I've seen in a city centre. Further out of town there's Brian Clough Way, running between Derby and Nottingham.

The only historical Derby author I've heard of is Samuel Richardson ("Pamela"). Apparently he tried to hide his humble origins. In contrast, I take every opportunity to photograph my name in lights, even if the lights aren't on. These letters were outside a cotton mill.

Sunday 24 July 2022

Narrative or pattern?

It happens to me most obtrusively when writing Flash. It starts when I add call-backs - allusions to earlier in the story. Then I notice emerging themes - old vs young, here vs there, etc - and accentuate them. Before long I have a net of connections and intersecting leit-motifs. Even if the narrative survives the re-writes, the readers' attention is bound to be distracted, bouncing back and forwards through the text.

Not all the connections are psychologically significant. Some are irrelevant to the plot, working independently of it - gratuitous coincidences, one might say.

Maybe a film equivalent is Peter Greenaway's Drowning by Numbers where, amongst many other patterns and allusions, the integers from 1 to 100 are shown (on the backs of sports shirts, etc) or spoken.

Pointing out to detractors that these come as a bonus doesn't often help, which is why during rewrites I sometimes remove the patterns that I've so carefully constructed. I've even deformalized poetry to suit current tastes. But fashions come and go, so I keep old versions.

Monday 11 July 2022

Flash fiction festival, 2022

I took the plunge and attended the Flash Fiction Festival - a packed 2 days where I went to talks by Ingrid Jendrzejewski, Venessa Gebbie, Stephanie Carty, Carrie Etter, Nancy Stohlman, and KB Carle, ably organised by Jude Higgins, Diane Simmons et al who kept the atmosphere friendly. People from several countries were there. It was structured like an academic conference, with parallel sessions of talks and workshops. It was at a theological college in Bristol - with a bar and karioke. Not much accommodation available, so I camped on their lawn (telling the kids I was festival camping). About 100 delegates all told. I'd met a few of them already and knew a few others by name, so I networked without trouble for a change.

While I was waiting for the first session to begin and the presenter was trying to get projection working, she said "give me a command line and I'm fine". She mentioned emacs. It made me feel at home.

Flash has emerged over the last few years. It's still finding a place for itself (though of course it's been around since Kafka, the Bible etc). It's interesting watching a new "genre" in the process of carving its niche - some people come to it from the poetry world, and some from short stories. People say that the quality has shot up over the last decade. There are quite a few Flash books out now. I've also seen books that are explicit poetry/Flash and short-story/Flash combinations.

A term that I heard in 3 sessions which I hadn't heard before was "hermit crab" where content slips inside a (perhaps unrelated, perhaps ironic) form. A piece called "Recipe for War" can be set out as a recipe. There are many standardised templates that can be used as forms - instructions for games, adverts, letters, shopping list, school reports, horoscope, crosswords, etc. Pieces like this used to appear in poetry magazines, but that always seemed a miscategorisation to me.

Saturday 2 July 2022

Mike Dawes, poetry and complexity

Mike Dawes is a percussive finger-style guitarist. On a youtube clip he describes his work as comprising many simple layers (bass, vocals, etc). On a guitar there are several ways to play a particular note. Depending on how a guitar is tuned, the note may be available on a open string. By pressing on another string it may be available by conventionally plucking with the right hand or, more unusually, by plucking the other part of the string between the fret and the end - either with the left or right hand. The technical challenge is choosing the best way to play a note given the other notes that need to be played simultaneously or soon.

Maybe there's some gratuitous showmanship when both of his hands jump up and down the strings, but he has a clean style and metronomic precision. Sometimes it's not possible to play every note of every layer - missing items can be suggested (instead of a percussive beat, a note in the melody line is played more loudly) or left for the listener to fill in. Sometimes a single note may belong to more than one layer. Sometimes it's possible to add flourishes.

Now here's the analogy. In a poem the poet may try to convey multiple/layered meanings - reason and emotion, etc - while also giving physical descriptions or narrative. It can't all be done at once. The task is often compared to juggling - "keeping all the balls in the air" - but maybe Dawes' guitar playing is a closer analogy. Once the percussive beats are established, there's no need to play every one - the odd reminder will do. And even the deaf can see artistry in the dancing fingers.

The following poem isn't perhaps the best demonstration, but at least it's mine.

Crows' nests
Autumn's X-ray reveals them,
the trees suddenly old,
the crows gone, spreading.

The title could refer to birds or to the sailors' lookout. The first stanza wants us to see the leafless trees as X-ray images, which gives "spreading" a double meaning. So already we have 3 scenarios (birds, lookout, illness) on the go, none of them complex. Can all 3 be sustained?

Through long summer evenings
you heard them but said nothing

This could refer to the birds, though it's more likely to refer to the person ignoring early signs of the illness

Now you want to hide away there,
sleepless nights alone waiting
This is about the illness, and wanting to hide in the lookout
for the first sight of land,
the darkness flapping
so close to you, so huge

The lookout again, hoping for good news, hearing the flapping sails, and the birds are back, the crows having their customary ominous meaning.