Friday, 27 November 2009

100 Poems In A Day - I DID IT!

So yesterday I attempted to write 100 poems in a day - and succeeded! Boom.

It was a weird experience. The night before, I'd done my classic thing of feeling nervous and excited ahead of a big day, so I stayed up until 4am playing a Japanese RPG and reading Ted Hughes' Crow (which I reasoned might give me some inspiration by osmosis). A few hours later, my alarm went off at 8:25. I put it on snooze, and ended up getting out of bed at 8:35, just enough time for me to pop across to Tesco.

Outside it was one of those cold, bright days that make Winter great, except I was knackered from lack of sleep; I hallucinated someone calling my name, and it felt like all the pedestrians were part of some intricately choreographed performance for which I'd missed the dress rehearsal. At the supermarket, I dismissed food that required cooking time as too complicated - my schedule didn't allow for extended culinary activities - and instead bought a packet of crisps, three half-litre cans of energy drink, a bag of peanuts and a Kinder Bueno. When I got back, I made myself a bowl of All-Bran, (the most complicated food preparation I had time for all day) printed out the list of suggested titles so far, then sat down at my laptop with all of three minutes to spare, just enough time to log in to my blog and Twitter, before typing my first title into Twitter and getting started.

Originally, I'd planned to be clocking off by 11pm, but I thought it'd be sensible leaving the extra hour until midnight as a contingency period. 15 hours is 900 minutes, meaning I'd have an average of 9 minutes to write each poem. That is, 9 minutes, assuming no eating, toilet breaks, or doing anything a normal human being would do. I hadn't really thought about the practical limitations of what I was getting into. No, don't worry, I didn't just sit there and wet myself. Catheter.

No, obviously I got up for loo breaks, and to stretch my legs, which ate into my overall time. Thanks to a sneaky tip off, BBC Radio Cambridge got wind of what I was doing and phoned in the morning to ask if they could give me a title suggestion then speak to me in late afternoon. By the time I went on air, I was delirious from caffeine and still less than half the way through the hundred poems, which made me feel a little fraudulent, but the fear of failure was a good boost.

If you look across the day, despite any mounting feelings of failure, in terms of delivery schedule I was boringly consistent. The first poem appears at 9:00am, and, at 16:43, poem number 50 comes almost exactly at the midpoint of my attempt, with the final poem landing at 23:30. While I was writing, however, my brain was too frazzled to do even simple maths, so I remained convinced throughout that I was considerably behind and destined for an ignominious crash and burn scenario.

And so, to the poems themselves. I realise it would usually be rather crass and self-regarding to do critiques on one's own work, but a) I've already proven myself to be rather crass and self-regarding by attempting this cheap stunt and b) kind of the point of this whole thing was to get myself and others thinking about some of the mechanisms behind writing a poem.

I had more than 100 suggestions for poem titles, and I received a whole bunch more via Facebook, Twitter and by text over the day, so I had a certain amount of latitude to pick and choose what I was going to do next, balanced out by the need to get on to the next poem and not waste time deciding. Looking at the poems as a whole, even when there are a few good lines, what tends to suffer the most from the speed poetry process are the endings. The poems either finish abruptly, having made no discernable point, or they go for some try-hard punchline in an attempt to justify their existence. I think Fuck Denmark is a good example of this - a couple of nice images around the middle, in my humble opinion, then right at the end I obviously thought 'shit! I have to tie the two concepts together!' and finished with two rubbish lines which have all the subtlety of Jeremy Clarkson.

Thinking about it, endings are usually quite hard in performance poetry too. How many performance poems can you think of with great endings? (off the top of my head, the two I've come up with are both by John Cooper Clarke) Now how many can you think of with weak or indifferent endings? For me, it's a lot, lot more. If you know any great endings in page or stage poems, please forward me your suggestions. I'd like to do a whole blog entry on the thorny problem of concluding a poem, and different ways poets have approached it (successfully or otherwise).

One little accident I quite enjoyed was the spontaneous appearance of a couple of poetry sequences. Death and otters seem to be the two key themes in the work of Tim Clare. I'm pretty pleased with that. But overall, it was interesting how I found myself returning to characters as the day went on, and building up a little story.

Here's the 'My Affair With Death' sequence, in order:

Sleeping Myself To Death
About Bones
Okay, So I Didn't Invent The Superbowl Jetpack, But
Deception Sex Triangle
Okay, But There's A Tram Coming
Gulliver, Nifty, Patience & Otter
The Bible Distilled
Train Travel
City Road Bus Stop

Honourary members of this sequence are It Feels As Tight As A Drum and Granny In A Bag (And Heading For The River) which introduce the poet's boss, Kit, and Otter Chaos, which introduced otters into the whole mess.

Of course, if it's real literary merit you're after, then this duet is where it's at:

Nathan And The Willy Tree


So, did I produce anything I actually like? Well, yes, but I think the ones I'm fond of are the rather silly, fatuous ones. I guess I have a soft spot when it comes to stupid for stupid's sake. Oh well. I quite like:

The Hump (mainly for the middle stanza)
Galactic Combat Battle Pony Ride
Christopher Christopher Christopher Christopher (for the ending)
Why So Many Blank DVDs?
Why I Can't Accept Your Friend Request
I Would Like To Take The Opportunity To Introduce Myself

And that's me. If anybody who had a go at one of the titles fancies emailing me the poem they wrote, I'll stick it up on the blog as a bonus track.

All in all, I enjoyed the experience, although I reckon it's the kind of thing I couldn't do more than once a year. I'd recommend it to any other poets who fancy stretching themselves or trying something a bit fun and different - failure's built into the mechanics of it, it's expected, so the only pressure comes from wanting to get through the full ton.

It'd be nice to extend the life of the project, though, maybe by handing it on to a new poet, and so on, getting a series of people to attempt the same thing, and seeing the different ways they try to put poems together. If it sounds like something you'd like to have a go at, drop me a line at my email (in the sidebar of this blog) - not because I get to personally sanction all attempts at writing 100 poems in a day, but just because it'd be nifty to stick all versions up on the same blog. Just a thought, anyway.

Um, thanks to everyone who made suggestions for poetry titles. Sorry I couldn't get through them all. The only genuinely brilliant thing about yesterday, creatively-speaking, was the titles, which I'm sure you'll agree are awesome and inventive and make fun reading in themselves. I'm sorry if I used one of your suggested titles and made an absolute hash of it - I hope, if you've not been inspired, then sheer irritation will push you into working on some pieces of your own. You cultureless bastards.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

100 Poems In A Day - Starts Tomorrow!

The day of judgement is upon us - tomorrow I attempt to write 100 poems in a day You'll be able to check my progress on the blog and on my Twitterfeed, and join in if you want to. Err... cheers to all the people who've sent me poem titles or generally said 'Jesus... good luck!'

There's a good chance my internet connection may go a bit spotty on a couple of occasions over the course of tomorrow - I've got mobile broadband and although it's pretty reliable if I stay in the same place, occasionally it drops out for a few minutes. If that's the case, I'll switch to writing in a Word file rather than direct into the blog, then copypaste them back into the blog as soon as the signal kicks back in. If you want to join in, just look at my Twitter page or the Twitter gadget on the side of either blog to see what the latest poem title is, then give yourself a strict 10 mins to bash out a poem with that title. Don't worry if it turns out okay or not - if you don't mind other people seeing it, please email it to me at joshureplied[at]yahoo[dot]co[dot]uk and I'll put it up on the blog afterwards. Obviously if the idea of having your rough first draft workings exposed makes every part of you cringe like a prodded anemone then I'd rather you had a go in secret than didn't try at all!

Speed poetry is weird for a number of reasons, not least because, for most poets, the title's the thing that comes last. Often it's a bit of an afterthought - something unobtrusive, like a single word, or the first line repeated. A lot of the time now, when I'm onstage I don't give my performance poems titles at all.

This week I've been reading Logan Murray's Teach Yourself Stand Up Comedy and really enjoying it. He manages to be positive and practical at the same time, and there's lots of specific, robust technical advice on stagecraft and developing a set. Surprisingly though, I found that a lot of his advice could be equally well applied to writing and performing poetry - humorous or otherwise. I very much recommend you read it.

I think, in particular, some of his ideas about deciding on an 'attitude', then channelling material through that attitude may prove really useful to anyone attempting speed poems tomorrow. For the most part, if, once you've read the title, you can answer the question 'who is (in my imagination) writing this poem, and what do they think about the subject matter?' then a lot of the words end up writing themselves. If you can quickly choose a specific voice (note - specificity is key: 'mortally wounded pizza delivery boy gasping onto someone's answering machine through his mobile' is much better than 'dying guy') then have that implicit character respond to the title, you filter out a lot of distracting possibilities and get to work within fairly manageable parameters. Not all poems are monologues, obviously, but by faking up an attitude towards the subject matter, even if it's just 'deep, abiding loathing' or 'sexual arousal' is more likely to produce something interesting than just attempting to fit the words from the title into a series of unrelated sentences.

The other main guideline is just switch the censor off and go for it. When I've done speed poems previously I've often later discovered - to my considerable dismay - that in my rush to get words on the page I've ended up unconsciously plagiarising other poets, and plagiarising them cack-handedly at that. You don't have much time to look up the meanings of words, so I often find my poems are littered with awkward malapropisms. I often paint myself into corners and have no idea how to finish the poem.

It doesn't matter. Better to plunge into the poem with no real idea of how it's going to end than to sit there for 8 minutes growing ever more nervous and ashamed at the blank page. Every so often, something surprising, pleasing, and exciting comes out of it - something I'd never have known about if I'd spent those 8 minutes making a sandwich or watching a youtube video. If you have a go, I hope you get that experience at least once. But I hope I get it lots more than you. Heh.

So anyway, I'll do the last of my prep stuff now, collating the list of suggested titles, then I'll try to get a little sleep. Fingers crossed. See you tomorrow...

P-Day: November 26th, 9:00 GMT

So, the 100 Poems In A Day Project has an official blog! Also, an official kickoff time. 9am, this Thursday. Aww crap. I'm actually going to have to do it now.

Will you join me? You know, if anyone has ideas for poem titles on the day itself, do suggest them, and I guess I'll work a few into this big, silly quest. If you fancy writing along with me, please do. Between us, I hope we'll write a whole bunch of not-terribly-good poems, and thoroughly grease up our creative cogworks in the process. Hopefully before I start I'll find time to blog a few tips on how to approach writing a poem in ten minutes or less. I've got to give a little time over to planning out my strategy, elseways the ton may get the better of me.

You'll be able to follow me on Twitter, and read the poems as I write them up on the 100 Poems In A Day Project blog. In the meantime, I'm going to devote myself to a bit of prep work - reading other people's stuff, and absorbing as much inspiration as I can. Heh heh. It's going to be fun, I reckon!

Friday, 20 November 2009

The Wall

This wasn't a speed poem. I took a while over it and have no excuses other than a dearth of craft.

The Wall

The men are building a wall.

On top of the wall is a large cobalt blue radio
With armoured sides and black rubber
Shock absorbers,
Like a hornet trapped
In an ear trumpet.
It is built for being Humpty Dumptied
By a raconteur labourer’s careless fish-boast gesture.
When it hits the pavement, it will bounce.

These men do not care.
They are blasé to the point of nihilism.
One keeps a live timebomb as a mantleclock.
One watches Sorry on DVD.
They are clock-faced from gravity
And the Soviet bread-queue of beer cans
Upending into their water clock throats.

The one sat at the top of the stepladder
(he is working on the wall)
Throws a wet chunk of apple
To an Irish wolfhound with a dry nose.
The wolfhound rises from its spot on a cement path
And hungrily devours the morsel out of midair,
Like a peacock gulping down lead shot.
The wolfhound’s name is Gary.

‘I would love to visit Rio,’
Says the one on the stepladder,
‘And see that big Jesus statue, you know.’
He spreads his arms,
Knocking the radio off the wall.
‘I will go there
When we finish the wall.’

‘When we finish the wall,’
Says the one eating a ham bun,
‘I will march through my front door
And announce to my big fat wife
That I love her.’
He throws a strip of ham to Gary.
‘And I will mean it
This time.’

‘I come back every night
With a hammer,’
Says the quiet one,
‘And knock out bricks like
Important words in a telegram,’
But nobody hears.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

3 Speed Poems

I've already received a whole bunch of awesome suggested poem titles for the 100 Poems In A Day Project. There's a great variety of facetious, serious, abstract and specific lines there for me - and everyone else who decides to join in - to work from. Thanks peeps! Please keep them coming!

So, since I haven't written any speed poems for a while, I've realised I probably need to do a bit of warming up. Over the next few days or so, I plan to do a post or two on poem technique and strategy, specifically when it comes to speed poems. I don't claim to be an expert - my main reason for doing posts on the subject is to organise my own thoughts in preparation. I wonder if speed poetry is the closest written verse gets to improv, and so I expect I'll be looking at whether any moves from improv or comedy work when transferred to writing poems quickly. Hopefully, I'll be able to come up with a few tips that may prove useful if you decide you'd like to join me on my lengthy, many would say pointless, task. I'll also confirm that all-important date.

Writing speed poems also resembles doing a series of micro-commissions. I'm not very fond of commissioned poetry - it's hard enough writing about something when you're really interested in it and feel you have some original, considered take on it, let alone when it's something random chosen by someone else - but it may be a form you get better at with practice.

Anyway, tonight I decided to start feeling out the territory, and wrote three speed poems with my flatmate - one of us picked a line out of a book, then we had 10 minutes to write the corresponding poem. I'd forgotten how grim it feels when, six or seven lines in, you realise the poem isn't going to work. I reckon one of the key skills to develop in writing speed poetry, is spending thirty seconds to a minute at the start, working out your tactics, and the broad shape of your take on the subject. Figure out a serviceable conceit, and writing the content is relatively straightforward. Plunge straight into your first few lines without knowing where you're going, and you'll find yourself rapidly buggered.

So, in any case, here are my first three practice laps. Feel free to take one of the titles and have a try yourself. I have a looong way to go:

Italians Are Still Into That

All the pigeon shit
that gives Garibaldi a Tippex toupee
while a maths teacher leaves
the gelateria licking a passion fruit
cornet and some semi-pro rower
with triceps like stirrups and deltoids
like a smooth new saddle single-skulls
east down the fishbelly green Arno;
in this funereal heat
the bins stink to high
horizons wobble with heat warp,
even the lizards can't be bothered,
and Garibaldi's black statue
thrums like an old stove
like a low note
or a pizza stone
and, apparently,
the Italians are still into that.

A Short Time Ago, A Tramp Came To Our Door

Now he is telling us
an elaborate story involving
inventing a new type of washing-up
liquid. I know he's lying
but I can't bear to send him
away because I want to hear
how it ends.

I think he may be winging it.
Beneath his grey felt hat
his good eye has begun to tick
as he fumbles for details.

Awkwardness blooms
like gunshot blood
as he founders around the part
where his research partner
double-crossed him.
'I thought you said his name
was Alan,' I interrupt,
'stop, stop.'
I rearrange his collar,
brush Monster Munch
crumbs off his tie.

One Might Expect These Scenes To Be Tedious

Dorothy doesn't feel like
going out to The Lamb tonight
because she's tired after
a bad day on front desk
and Oliver doesn't know how
he can be expected to have sex
with her when she won't watch
Shawshank Redemption and all
her clothes smell of rusks.

What if the TV jawed open
like a treasure chest,
exposing a golden airplane yoke,
or alien controls like
an insect's complicated mouthparts?
What if the lawn became a firelake
and we had to pilot the house
away from the apocalypse?
he says.

She says
that would be brilliant.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The 100 Poems In A Day Project

I was chatting to poet, author and magma-arteried destroyer of worlds John Osborne this weekend, when he mentioned discovering that a poet we both knew had never heard of speed poems.

Well, here's a pathetically small potential controversy to rock my friends and the poetry world at large - up until a few minutes ago, I believed that I had invented speed poetry. When, back in uni, me and about a dozen other members of the UEA Creative Writing Society headed off to Herefordshire for a week long writing retreat, we wanted an exercise to do as a group. (I know, I know - my uni days were fookin mental) As a nerd I have had many incarnations - all of which, if I'm candid, I only feign shame over - one of which was a tabletop gaming nerd, and I remembered how, at the annual Games Workshop convention Golden Demon, the organisers tried to really get pulses racing by having a screamin' hot SPEED PAINTING COMPETITION, where contestants had to paint a lead model in an hour, and the best won. An hour seemed a bit long for a writing exercise, so I suggested we pick a word, all write a poem in ten minutes using that word, then read them out. That was my understanding of how speed poetry was born.

Two qualifiers: one, I may have misremembered. I'm pretty sure several of my friends would say that it just sort of bubbled up out of the memepool as a communal idea that we all sort of cottoned onto at the same time. Two, having Googled 'speed poetry', I've discovered - without, to be honest, much surprise - that many people have been writing various species of speed poetry for years. To be clear, I'm not claiming to have invented the concept - just that I was there when it appeared in my friendship group. It's not a particularly outlandish concept after all - bordering on obvious, in fact - so I'm more surprised when I encounter poets who've never heard of it.

In the years since then, me and a whole bunch of my writing friends have regularly got together for tea and speed poetry sessions. I reckon it works best with a group of four, although you can do it on your own if you like, or even with a dozen writers. Similarly, you can impose any arbitrary time limit, but we almost always go for ten minutes.

The way it works is: one person flicks through a book, a magazine, an instruction manual - anything with text - and picks out a few words or a phrase. Everyone writes it down as their title, the clock starts, and they have ten minutes to write a corresponding poem. At the end of the ten minutes, everybody reads out the poem they've written. Then you someone picks another phrase, and you start again. Ideally, you do a run of five poems, which comprises a good hour or so of reading and writing.

It's the reading out part that makes a lot of people squeamish. They imagine - for the most part, correctly - that the poems they produce will be crap. What's the point in doing a writing exercise that produces bad poetry almost by design? And why would you want to share that with others?

For me, writing speed poetry does a bunch of things. When I started out, I found the first few poems I wrote tended heavily towards parody. They were these mock highbrow pieces, usually closing with a line about someone farting, to break the mood. I quickly realised I was using (not terribly funny) humour as a defence - a way of letting my fellow writers know that I hadn't taken the exercise seriously or really tried my fullest, so they couldn't judge me on the quality of the poem. At the same time, I got to hear several of my peers faced with the same title, mostly producing poor poetry, but occasionally coming up with a great turn of phrase, or a strange, arresting opening, or a sudden vivid image amongst a load of turgid waffle. Hearing a range of interpretations of the same spur material, but also realising that they were writing bad poetry and the world hadn't ended, encouraged me to move away from piss-take poems, and to actually try to be good.

My first few poems after this shift were much worse. I had no idea what I was doing. With the sense of urgency created by the timer, I tried to bluff my way through, picking words I thought sounded like they belonged in a poem, constructing these vague, obfuscatory word parades that I hoped might seem artsy in that whole impressively recondite, emperor's new clothesish way. I'd always struggled to enjoy poetry, and had assumed that this pointed to a failure of intellect on my part, rather than any defect in the pieces I'd read.

But it never mattered that my poems were shit. Nobody cared. We'd read our attempts out, then move on to the next round. Each speed poetry session, I might hear between three and twenty new poems read out to me by their authors. Each one gave me hints on different ways of approaching the same subject matter or interpreting the same phrase - oh yes, I'd think, a poem can sound like found dialogue, or it can be like a little third-person short story with line breaks, or it can have a chorus like a song, or repeated lines, or take all its similes from a particular lexical field, or be presented as instructions, or just be a list of stuff, or be an open letter to somebody, or be in praise of something, or adopt the style of another type of text like a newspaper report. Slowly, I was building up a repetoire of options for when I got the next title. Often, I'd find myself semi-consciously plagiarising poems from the previous rounds, bastardising metaphors or techniques in an attempt to expand my range.

Doing speed poetry regularly helps abolish a fear of blank pages. You learn to just roll your fucking sleeves up and have a bash. You experiment, you try out lines, you muck about, you learn by doing. Weeks later, it's sometimes worthwhile to go through old sessions and see if there are any lines worth saving. If so, you can underline them, or even transfer them to a fresh page, ready to be used in worthy (i.e. non-crap) poems later on. Old speed poems certainly work great as sources of inspiration when you're stuck with writers' block - a sort of scrapheap of battered ends and odds you can traipse through, looking for promising salvage.

Another useful side-effect of speed poetry is that it gives you hints about poems you want to write, but don't realise yet. Sometimes, looking back over a session, you see a theme over several poems, despite their different titles, or you notice a stanza that doesn't fit with the rest of the poem. Often, this is a result of your butting your head against the arbitrary constraints imposed by the task, and these little bids for creative freedom can give you great pointers on what sort of pieces you might want to attempt 'properly' - that is, with more than ten minutes to spare.

One final positive thing about writing speed poetry is that it's fun. I know it's a gut-clasping cliché, but writing can be a lonely business, and having friends by your side as you claw ineffectually at the literary coalface makes the whole process slightly more bearable.

In any case, all of that is just a preface to what I wanted to say, which is that I've become a bit prissy about my writing of late, working on these big, unwieldy performance poems that sit around as ideas for months and months, then take me days to write, and weeks to learn, before I finally take them to an audience. I haven't kept a notebook for ages, and I never do writing exercises anymore. I find myself thinking that if I can't do a project perfectly, I'm better off abandoning it.

So I want to put that right. I accept I can't necessarily change my habits forever, but I'd like to go back to doing a bit of the old donkey work, you know, punching in, churning out crap, putting the creative machinery through its paces and limbering up so when an idea next strikes, I'll be firing on all cylinders and will be able to exploit it to its fullest advantage.

Anyway, I was thinking about speed poems, and I was wondering about doing a really long session, then I wondered about how long you could keep it going for, then I thought: a hundred? Could you really do a hundred in a day?

Well, the maths supports me. You don't have to spend 10 minutes on a speed poem. We've done 5 minute sessions, even a series of 1 minute speed poem sessions (which are kind of thrilling and terrifying, as far as writing poems goes - you've got no choice but to just stream text unedited from your brain to the pen). If someone started at 9am and kept going until 11pm, some 14 hours later, that gives a good 840 minutes for writing speed poems. Now, granted, if you took 10 minutes for each, that'd only be 84 (assuming no wee or food breaks, or technical malfunctions), but notch the time frame down to 8 minutes and you get 100 poems, plus a whole 5 minutes for pissing! By my reckoning, if you were to chuck in a few 1 minute poems and a few 5 minute ones, writing 100 poems in a day would be doable.

So, I'm going to.

I'm sure it's been done before. I'm not doing it out of any claim of it being an amazing technical feat or anything, just for the reasons above. It'll only take a day, it'll be an interesting writing experiment, and it'll force me to try to write 100 discrete creative pieces on the trot.

But I need titles.

So what I thought is this: readers of the Cone O' Tragedy, could you help a poet out and suggest some titles for poems I could write over my 100 Poem Day? As many as you like. Go nuts. They can be facetious or deadly serious, found text or quotations or even titles from your own work. I just need lots. You can post them as a comment on this blog, or email me at the address in the sidebar, or message me on Facebook. Whatever, I don't mind.

What I'm thinking is that, on the day (which might even be next week, depending on workload), I'll have all the titles in a Word file, and I'll work through them one at a time, writing a speed poem, then posting it online once I'm done, either up on this blog, or at a special 100 Poems In A Day Project blog that I'll link to from here.

And since one of my favourite things about speed poetry is the group aspect of it, I thought that I'd post each of the titles up on Twitter (yes, I've cracked... I'm officially an uncool late-adopter) as I'm about to write it, so anyone who wants to join in with a couple themselves can write along with me. You never know, it might get the old creative juices sluicing from your nostrils once more, and I daresay I'll post any alternate versions of poems written by other participants up on the blog afterwards.

Uh, one rule I've set myself though. Despite the involvement of Twitter, these won't be Twitter poems. Although some may be very short, all of them must be longer than 140 characters to qualify! Otherwise I'm basically setting myself the challenge of writing 100 text messages in a day, which seems rather less worthwhile.

Probably every poem I write will be total crap. I am sure the majority will be. But there may be some nice flourishes in there. Who knows? Maybe the range of titles will trigger an unexpected gem. Unlikely. However, I think it may be an interesting adventure into the grimy nuts and bolts of how a person goes about writing a poem. It may also play out like a slow exploded breakdown conducted over the internet. If everyone suggests titles relating to dog penises, maybe it will be the rather sad spectacle of someone writing 100 dreadful poems about canine genitalia. We can only speculate and pray to our respective gods for guidance.

So what do you think? Good idea? Bollocks idea? And if you'd like to see me take a run at it, please start suggesting titles! A whole bunch of titles each would be good! Hopefully some of you will even have a go at writing a few poems with me on the fateful day. Hmm. Is this wise? Oh psshaw! I toss it to the winds of fate. Start the fans please!

Monday, 16 November 2009

Found In Translation on Radio 4!

Hey, hey, hey, if you tune into to Radio 4 this Thursday, 19th November, at 11:30am, you'll be able to hear a show about the Oulipo, where they chat to me and my fellow Aisle16ers Ross Sutherland and Joe Dunthorne about our Oulipo-inspired poems and our show about our attempt to infiltrate the Oulipo, Found In Translation.

For those of you who don't know, the Oulipo are a French experimental literature movement who played with imposing arbitrary constraints on language (like writing an entire novel without using the letter 'e', for example) as a way of breaking out of old habits and encouraging creativity. On discovering their work and techniques, we felt as if we were learning a whole new language. And, like anyone learning a new language, the first thing we wanted to do was be as rude as possible. 'Slap a gran's damp and tangy flaps!' we hollered, straining with mirth at our uncommon verve and ingenuity.

The show is apparently Radio 4's 'Podcast of the Week', so you should be able to download it afterwards, and it'll be on Listen Again for a week as well.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

You, The Master Of Unlocking

(via the ever-giving Metafilter)

I love video games, and, as some of you may know, I've written dialogue for games too, as well as helping cast and direct voice actors. So, you know, I get a little piqued when game companies release titles with crappy dialogue. What's the point of pouring all that time and energy into making a game fun and visually arresting, then doing a really shitty, scrappy job on the script?

Not all of these are examples of bad acting - some are abysmally scripted, and some are the result of poor directing. I think even Laurence Olivier would struggle to deliver 'you, the master of unlocking' convincingly. Also, video game actors tend to record all their dialogue separately, reading off big Excel spreadsheets with every instance of speech in a big list, without context. They need a director on hand to give them their feed lines and explain what's going on in the game when they're saying it, to take account of the multiple possible ways they might choose to inflect a line, and the different meanings each choice might convey. I'm not calling for weeks of pseudy, brow-scrunching dramaturgy or video game character method actors, just basic competence please.

I played Fable 2 last week, putting aside some insane choices with regard to game mechanics that make it considerably worse than the original (you can't die, making every battle virtually without consequence, plus they've taken away the Will gauge from Fable, meaning it becomes just another form of projectile attack, and you just spaz on the cast button instead of using strategy) the voice acting is as crappy as ever. Well, that is to say, Zoe Wanamaker and Stephen Fry's characters are actually done really well - but they're noticably better than every other bit of speech in the game, which veers between hammy at best, and, at worst, completely incompetent. In the original, I was absolutely gobsmacked at how bad the voice acting was for Maze, the Guild wizard - totally flat, like a voiceover for an aeroplane safety video, or someone selling biscuits. Most of the rest of the incidental voice acting for villagers and guards was merely irritating and hammy. Grr. Why build a game around narrative and trying to engross people in a story, then do such a shitty job of writing and recording dialogue? YOU SILLY SAUSAGES!! I've pretty much lost faith in the Fable franchise now, which is a shame, because - despite its feeble length and duff script - I found lots to enjoy in the first one, including a really satisfying battle mechanic that made switching between long-range sniping, magical zapping and melee combat easy and fun, and plenty of choice in how to approach battles. The 'Boast' system was great too. Fable 2 somehow manages to take the increased capabilities of the Xbox 360 and the lessons of the original, and come up with something much worse. Boo.

Anyway, I'm ranting now. I'll go and play Portal or something to calm myself down.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Christmas Is Coming

Hey look, Christmas is just around the corner. If you're stuck for a present for that frustrated writer in your family, or that artsy depressive, or that smug schadenfreude-loving accountant, then you could do a lot worse than snapping up a copy of We Can't All Be Astronauts, my award-winning book about desperately wanting to become a bestselling author, and being jealous of all my mates. It's dead cheap, you'd be helping to boost my sales, and if you want me to sign it to make it seem all fancy-like just drop me an email. So yeah, don't hold back - solve all your gift dilemmas and give me a merry Christmas simultaneously!

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Pieces Of Me

So 'Cone O' Tragedy' ticks just about every 'Don't' in the list of bad blog design. Whenever I put up another piece about some obscure arcade game and what I think about it, I alienate most of my artsy, poetic audience. Whenever I write about my opinions on the UK performance poetry scene, everyone who reads the video game stuff yawns and switches off. Even amongst my miniscule audience, I ensure there's something to bore everyone.

But it's inefficient, alienating one demographic at a time. So here's a little something that will alienate everyone simultaneously. I think I'm probably oversharing (on multiple levels) but I've written it now, so it seems a shame not to post it. Uh, so anyway. I just wanted to warn you.

It's called a speculum, and it's a little tapered metal thing. The article on the website said it was about 4cm in diameter, but I reckon it was closer to 3cm. It's attached to this long transparent plastic hose, and the far end of the hose connects to a white box a bit like a shower control panel, with a dial and buttons, and the other end of the hose - the speculum end - gets daubed in lube, then pushed up your anus. Well, not your anus, obviously. My anus.

A couple of weekends ago, I went for colonic irrigation - or colonic hydrotherapy, as most practitioners now call it. For those of you who don't know, it involves having a hose shoved up your bum, then water pumped into your bowels. Our appointment was at nine o'clock on Saturday morning. I say 'our', because me and my girlfriend went to have a session together. You know, like normal couples do.

On the drive there we tossed a coin to decide what order we'd go in. She won the toss and elected to go first. We drove down a road plastered with wet autumn leaves that had collected in big drifts in the gutters and got mashed to mulch under car tyres, and I thought about mashed up food and the insides of my colon. My girlfriend started slowing down as we came to a line of detached suburban houses, set back from the road. She wasn't sure she could remember the exact number, so we peered through the rain-streaked windscreen between squeaks of the wipers, trying to figure out which house looked like it might belong to a professional bum-cleaner.

'What will you do if it's just a fat bloke in a stained vest, smoking a fag and holding a bit of pipe?' said my girlfriend.

I laughed, a little hysterically, and gripped the door handle. 'Are you sure this place is okay?'

'I don't know.'

'Don't you? Why did you choose it?'

'It was the only one I could find in Norwich.' My girlfriend saw my fraught expression and added, 'She seemed really nice in the email. She gave us a list of things we had to do in preparation. I printed it out but I think I must have left it at work. God knows what my colleagues are going to think if they find it.'

'That you're going for colonic irrigation?'

'Oh, I've told them already. I think this one is the place.' She swung the car into an unremarkable driveway and the tyres crunched on pea shingle as we pulled up.

I took a deep breath. 'Well, here goes.'

We walked round to a door at the side and rang the doorbell. From inside, we could hear frenzied barking. I could feel my chest tightening. I wasn't sure what I was going to say if someone answered the door and gave us both a blank look.

The door was opened by a healthy-looking, normal-looking lady with short hair and a wide smile. 'Hi,' she said. 'You're here for the hydrotherapy?'

Her soft tones and gentle manner suggested she knew how nervous we were. We were led into a converted kitchen area and invited to take a seat. On the side of the room by the door were shelves laden with homeopathic tinctures in big brown glass bottles, and on the opposite side was a large treatment table and the aforementioned hose and control unit, which was made by Mira, the company that made my parents' shower. I really like a good power shower, and I reckon Mira are a great manufacturer, so I tried to cling to that mundane detail as the lady started asking us a short questionnaire about our dietary habits and bowel movements.

'Now you two are friends, but you're not together?' she said.

Me and my girlfriend looked at each other. 'No,' she said, 'we're together.'

'Oh, okay,' said the woman. 'So you're comfortable with answering some personal questions?'

We both nodded. I could feel myself beginning to blush.

My girlfriend went first. While she got up onto the table and rolled onto her side, I picked up a copy of Reader's Digest and pointedly engrossed myself in an article about a woman and her boyfriend who got stranded on an island populated by komodo dragons. The woman walked over to a portable CD player.

'Okay,' she said. 'I'm just going to put on some chill out music.'

As the kitchen filled with the strains of Morcheeba, I read about how the bacteria coating komodo dragons' fangs mean a single bite is usually fatal, so they follow wounded prey, waiting for them to die, and the lady gave my girlfriend a rectal examination and asked if there had been any blood in her stools. The whole treatment took about 40 minutes, during which time I kept my head buried in reading material.

After my girlfriend had been unplugged and had popped to the adjacent loo, it was my turn.

The woman handed me a powder blue towel. 'If you just go through into the loo and pop off your bottoms, then we can get started.'

I went into the bathroom, where there was a loo and a set of electronic scales and a sink and lots of toilet rolls. As I undid my belt and dropped my trousers, I reflected on the fact that I was paying a stranger to poke a lubed finger up my bum then pump me full of water. I hoped she didn't think I was doing it as a weird sex thing.

I left my trousers and boxer shorts puddled on the floor and emerged wrapped in the towel. I climbed up onto the padded treatment table.

'If you just want to move the towel round so it's open at the back,' said the lady, 'then roll over onto your side.' I shuffled the towel round a little awkwardly, then rolled over, away from her, and found myself staring into a large glass fishbowl. I concentrated on distorted goldfish as the woman told me to relax, 'this may feel a little uncomfortable at first.'

It felt a lot uncomfortable. She later told me that 'blokes seem to find it harder than girls, because...' she turned to my girlfriend for confirmation, 'I guess girls are more used to, y'know... medical procedures.' I think what she really wanted to say was 'having large cylindrical objects inserted into them', and, I must concede, the speculum is, to date, the largest thing I've ever knowingly had inserted into my anus. About 3cm in diameter and smeared in lube, it held my sphincter open as I rolled over onto my back. It was very cold, and hurt, as if someone were using thumb and forefinger to forcibly peel open my ringpiece.

'Okay, now I'm going to turn the water on,' said the lady in a clear, even tone. 'If you want to stop at any time, just let me know, but you'll have to give me a minute or two while I pump it all out.' She reached up to the control unit, pressed a button and turned the dial. She looked down at me, smiling. 'Can you feel it?'

At first I wasn't sure, then I felt a cold, trickly sensation. 'It's quite a weird feeling at first,' she said. 'Like you really need to go, then you don't again.'

This was true. I felt suddenly bloated and uncomfortable, like when I wake up the morning after a phaal and realise I've got about thirty seconds to get to the bathroom before the bumbay doors swing open and decorate my bed in fragrant ochres and chestnuts.

The lady asked me to move my towel down a little, and began massaging to the left of my stomach. 'This is the last part of your intestines, before it comes out, so if there's any food waiting it'll be here,' she said, tapping with her fingers the way the chest specialist did once to get phlegm off my lungs.

'Tim Clare?' my girlfriend called from her chair on the other side of the kitchen. 'Is it okay?' I could hear the glee in her voice.

'Yeah,' I grunted, as the tide reversed and water began sluicing back out of me into the transparent hose. There was a little round mirror on an articulated arm positioned to allow me to watch shit floating out of my bum, and I made a point of not looking at.

'It feels weird, doesn't it?'


'Just try to relax as much as possible,' said the lady.

As someone who occasionally gets performance anxiety pissing at public urinals, and has to wait until the bloke next to him has left before he can start to pee, I found it especially hard to relax while every physical cue was telling me that I was copiously shitting myself flat on my back in a stranger's kitchen. For all our supposed animal instincts, socialisation seems just as deeply hardwired into us, and as much as I told my body it was okay, my sphincter's clench reflex gripped that speculum like a bulldog with a chew toy, tenaciously trying to hold in the torrent of liquid pouring from my gaping backside.

Now, if you're still reading at this stage, you may - quite reasonably - be wondering, why was I doing this? Why did I not only consent to have a large object pushed up my arse, but pay for it, and take my girlfriend along? And perhaps the only answer you can come up with is that it was probably a weird sex thing.

Okay. I know how it looks, but it was not a weird sex thing. I think, maybe, to explain, I have to talk about the punts.

Once, I was sitting outside The Anchor pub in Cambridge, having a drink with my girlfriend. It was a sunny day, and the river was crammed with people punting. There were so many punts that there was barely enough room for them to get past each other. It was hot, and people were getting impatient, and the boats were so gridlocked I thought someone could probably use them as a bridge to run from one bank to the other, hopping from punt to punt like a middle-class pirate.

I traced three possible routes from where I was sitting to the opposite bank. I turned to my girlfriend with a big grin.

'I reckon I could run from here to the other bank,' I said. I'd had a pint and a half of Guinness, and the sun had left me a little lightheaded, and my girlfriend had a beautiful smile. 'I'm going to do it.'

I expected her to look worried and tell me not to, and then I'd engage in some brinkmanship for a bit, pretending I was really planning on doing it, and she'd giggle and tell me to stop it, and at last I'd back down, then we'd both laugh about it and I'd seem sexy and impulsive without actually having to do anything.

Instead, she said: 'Yeah! Do it!'

'I will!'

'Go on.'

I stuck my head through under the rope between our table and the water's edge. I looked at all the punts bunched together. The seats were covered with tartan blankets, black brollies tucked down the side. In one of the punts, a panting bulldog sat at the stern. In another, a little Japanese boy with a blue patch over one of his spectacle lenses pointed at the dog and squealed with delight.

I glanced back at my girlfriend. She was watching with excited anticipation. She really believed I was going to do it.

I'm going to do it, I thought.

'I'm going to do it,' I said.

'Do it,' she said.

I looked back at the river. One of the boats in the middle, piloted by a swarthy guy in a black vest with curlicued bramble tattoos across his biceps, was starting to break through the pack. There were lots of parents with young children.

If I run across their boats, they will think I'm stupid and rude, I thought.

'Right,' I said, moving as if to get up from my seat with what I hoped looked like sexily impulsive intent. I hoped my girlfriend would believe that I was serious, and finally tell me not to, so I could back down without looking like a fraud. I paused. She didn't say anything. I imagined myself clattering across the punt with the smiling German tourists in it, souring their day out. I pictured the old lady in the cotton blouse and the powder blue sunhat looking upset as I thumped through her boat with my big drunk feet. I imagined her returning home feeling a little less safe, a little less optimistic, because of the reckless young bell-end with a poor capacity for judging the mood.

The big-armed guy pushed hard with his pole, and his punt, containing an attractive blond girl, prowed loose into open water. The other boats began to drift apart. I sat back in my chair.

'I don't think it's possible now,' I said.

'Yes it is,' said my girlfriend.

I looked at the remaining punts. It obviously was.

'Nah,' I said, shrugging. 'I left it too late. I should've gone when I first said.'

My girlfriend looked disappointed. I took a sip of warm Guinness, and the world felt smaller.

So a month or so later when, after a reading an online article about a journalist who went to an intensive detox resort in Thailand where people shat out marbles and purple slime and chunks of raw steak into colanders, we started trading jokes about how we should go to have colonic irrigation as a couple, and wouldn't that be funny, and about how people would probably think it was a weird sex thing, and about what we thought might come out, I suppose I didn't want to back down. I didn't want to feel that tickle of nerves and excitement about getting into something unwise, only to put on my dull, grown-up face and say 'No, no, that's something I'd never do really.' I didn't want the joke to be over. Not even when she emailed me saying she'd found a place that actually did colonic irrigation. Not even when she suggested booking in as a couple. I thought, this is stupid. I thought, this will end in pain. I was, frankly, terrified. But it made me feel excited. It felt like something new and strange was going to come into my life. It made me feel I had the power to choose new things, to create my own future. And I didn't want that feeling to stop.

Also, I thought it might make me feel good. I was worried about my crap diet, and I'd read about people doing it and feeling pounds lighter and more energetic than they had in years. I'd started going to saunas a couple of months earlier, and they made me feel absolutely euphoric.

We met at a sauna evening. I'd just done a stand-up gig in Norwich. It had gone much better than I'd expected, and my friends Yanny and Molly said they were off to have a sauna. They suggested I come along. I said I couldn't. I had to get the train back to Cambridge, I had work to do, I hadn't brought a change of clothes with me, if I stayed I'd have to sleep on a sleeping bag on John and Molly's floor and I wouldn't get a decent night's sleep so I'd be knackered the next day, I hadn't been invited so it might be weird my turning up... I had lots of good reasons not go. But I was high from the gig, and I thought fuck it, and I went anyway. And I met someone, and I fell in love.

Not so long afterwards, I mentioned to my new girlfriend how I hadn't been on holiday in years, and how great it would be to just pick somewhere without thinking about it and go there.

'Let's do it!' she said.

I'd never been on holiday with someone I was going out with before. I'd never spent that long with just one person ever. We hadn't been going out very long. I thought, this is stupid. I thought, this will end in pain. I was, frankly, terrified. But it made me feel excited. It felt like something new and strange was going to come into my life. It made me feel I had the power to choose new things, to create my own future. And I didn't want that feeling to stop.

Love, for me, is like this beautiful dream-house. Every time I've moved in, it's seemed wonderful for a while, then suddenly one of the rooms has turned into one of those slow deathtraps from Saw, where to get free I've got to smash my own bollocks with a hammer otherwise a harpoon will jaw my ribcage apart and wrench my heart out, and then it turns out the trap's rigged and I get my balls smashed and my heart ripped out anyway. But then, after a few months, maybe longer, I find myself standing outside the house again, admiring the paintwork, remembering the time I spent there, and it looks so inviting, and I think, maybe this time it'll be different. Maybe this time, there'll be no buzzsaw deathmaze. And I go back in.

Maybe there can be empowerment in masochism. I guess I do things that conventional wisdom says are stupid, things I know will probably hurt, because at some level, it's my way of saying fuck you to a godless universe and those self-indulgent feelings of sucking nihilism that come a-creeping into my bedroom when the lights go out and I find myself staring up at the cracks in the ceiling, wishing I could transform into some wishy-washy religious fruitjob rather than confront the sledgehammer reality of pragmatic atheism.

After the lady unplugged me, I waddled to the bathroom. 'You may find you have a bit still to come out,' she said. 'Men tend to be a bit more tense than women, so you might have been holding it in.'

She wasn't kidding. The instant I'd locked the door and sat down on the toilet, I passed what felt like several basinsful of frothy brown fluid, and instantly felt two stone lighter. I emerged feeling bouncy and relieved.

I doubt I would ever do it again. I found it unpleasant throughout, my bum hurt for days afterwards (the only time I glanced at the mirror I swore I saw a dark trail of blood, and immediately looked away, my heart racing), and I paid sixty quid for the privilege. I'm talking about the colonic irrigation of course, not the last-minute holiday with my girlfriend, which turned out to be one of the most romantic, happiest times I've ever experienced.

Afterwards, as we drove home, my girlfriend expressed disappointment that both our sessions had produced nothing in the 'foreign objects' box on our report forms. Then she turned to me and said, 'You don't think she thought it was some kind of weird sex thing, do you?'

Those of you who know me (and, after this blog post, I suspect now you all feel you know me a little too well) know I find this world, and life, pretty scary. So why, on top of that, do I do things that scare the shit out of me?

I don't know. To be free of shit?