Saturday, 23 October 2010

The Day of the Launch

I had my book launch yesterday - that went pretty well. My publishers had spent about 5 hours on the train coming down from Peterborough and when they came, they brought wine so that was very welcome. Starting drinking wine at 11 AM wasn't such a great idea though. Of course, you never find out these things until afterwards.

I had a pretty good turnout. At least 30 people came, and most of them bought copies of the book. Some bought more than one. I kept a tally chart which I updated each time a signed a book, and had it subdivided into friends, fellow poets and strangers. After the allotted three hours, I had sold ten to friends, seven to poets and ten to strangers. I was very pleased to have sold so many to strangers. It's lovely to get the support of your friends, but reaching a stranger was especially nice.

Waterstones had expected to sell about fifteen copies, the publishers were hoping for twenty, but twenty seven was great. Much of the credit has to go to my dear friend, Swindon's community poet Tony Hillier. He was a whirlwind of energy as he asked people to 'roll up, roll up, meet the poet' and encouraged them into the shop.

I wish I was more comfortable being the centre of attention...

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Four Go Mad In Yorkshire

I've literally just got back from an amazing weekend away so I'm typing this up quick while the taste of metaphor and imagery is still rich on my tongue. Four poets from Bluegates (Tony Hillier, Michael Scott, Keith Hilling and myself) made the long journey from Swindon to darkest Yorkshire.

I'd never been to Yorkshire before. All I knew of it was what I had gleaned from Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe books and the occasional 'Last of the Summer Wine' episode as a child. It's easy to surpass expectations that don't exist, but I think I would have been impressed regardless. It was a great time.

A group of poets called Write Out Loud, based in Hebden Bridge, had booked a hostel for the weekend and filled it with poets and poetry. There were 46 people signed up, more when you count the organisers, workshop leaders and invited performance poets.

There were workshops on a wide variety of literary subjects: comic poetry, war poetry, script writing, experimental poetry, performance techniques, etc. There were 9 different workshops in all, but alas, only time to do 4 of them. I chose 'starting from a blank page', experimental poetry, Chartist poetry (more on this below) and 'getting pithy with pity', a study of the poetry of war.

My first workshop was 'starting from a blank page' and was a series of tricks that a constipated poet can use to get the creative juices flowing again. Some of the exercises were quite useful. For example, you can take a couple of lines from an existing poem, add new lines of your own and then delete the existing lines and see where the new direction takes you.

For example, we were given the lines 'I found them huddled on the bed / the paperback opening by itself'. We analysed this snippet (who were 'them'? Words? Children? Lovers? What did 'huddled' imply? A threat? Comfort? Intimacy? What about bed? Could it also be a flower bed or a river bed? Etc). We extended the two lines, based on what we'd discussed. When I had added my new lines, it came out as:
I found them huddled on the bed,
The paperback opening by itself,
Its spine damaged by the weight of favoured memories
As its words embrace,
Breath on cheek,
Sniffing each other's hair.
I probably won't be taking this poem any further, but it's an interesting trick. I may use it if writer's block gets too troublesome.

We also experimented with automatic writing techniques and self-hypnosis, letting the eyes defocus and writing about what we see. The most interesting thing in my field of vision were the crocheted flowers on the blouse of an elderly lady sitting opposite me. This inspired the following:
Flowers on a blouse
Made of fabric
Shot through with thread
That catches the light
Like a net catching butterflies.

Flowers on a blouse
Made of hearts
Three hearts making six petals
Holding hands at the corners
A blossomed brocade
At the top of a top
In the foyer of a hostel
In Yorkshire
Not a great poem, perhaps, (I was still warming up) but an interesting exercise. I gave it to the lady whose top had inspired it, and she was delighted. Poetry is for sharing.

We were then split up into pairs, and read our embryonic poems to each other, choosing four words randomly from each. My partner chose fabric, light, butterflies and hearts, and these words then had to be included in a new poem:
Butterflies fly
Scintillating, corruscating,
Made of light,
Their hearts aflame,
The fabric of their wings akimbo
As they crash,
Into the grill
Of a Volvo
No-one said it had to make sense! We were then given postcards to write about but my poem on this was shit, so I'm keeping it to myself. It wasn't all my fault. I was given an unused German postcard of quite a bad painting of an unimaginative flower arrangement. There was little to say about it, but the idea of writing based on a picture was a good one. I've done it before (click here for details).

I took the experimental poetry workshop not knowing what to expect, but discovered that poetry can be very weird indeed. My musical tastes include things that some people would consider a bit odd, but my poetic tastes are generally quite conservative and I wanted to stretch myself, but I found this workshop a bit challenging. Poems are discontinuous, sections cut and pasted from line to line, breaking up the narrative. Sentences are incomplete and sometimes just made up of punctuation. Some are very short (eg, 'So much depends/upon//the red wheel/barrow//glazed with rain/water//by the white//chickens', by William Carlos Williams. And yes, that is the whole poem). Experimental poetry is the written equivalent of abstract art, the non-representational paintings of Jackson Pollock. But I don't really get that either. I did write a poem based on these ideas, but I don't really like it very much so I'm going to keep that one to myself as well.

The Chartist poetry workshop was a revelation. Chartism was the world's first working class revolutionary movement, and started in about 1838. At the time, there was little democracy in Britain. The common man had no voice in Parliament, no vote, and was banned from standing for election. Chartism resolved to change this by the charter that gave the movement its name. It wanted secret ballots, a vote for every sane man over the age of 21 (if he wasn't in jail), wages for MPs, so the ordinary man could afford to represent his constituents, etc. While all but one of their demands (that parliaments be dissolved after a year) were set in law by 1918, in the mid 19th century, a very nervous government sent in the soldiers time and time again, leading to events like the Peterloo Massacre. And what was the driving force behind Chartism? Poetry. Newspapers in the industrial centres like Manchester and Sheffield printed thousands of poems by Chartists, calling members to arms and reflecting on the hypocrisy of their social betters. Even poets like Shelley were involved in this. The Chartist years could have been the time that poetry was the most effective instrument of social change. And yet, the poems from this time are largely unknown to us. They have been collected precisely once, in 1956, by a Russian publisher and translated back into English. And some are excellent. Here's an example, by an anonymous Manchester poet:
O, instinct there is none - nor show of reason
By outrage gross on God and Nature's plan,
With rarest gifts in blasphemy and treason,
That Man, the souled, should piecemeal murder man.
The final workshop I took was on war poetry. This was one of the best of all, not least because we did the most writing. We discussed the First World War poets, mainly Wilfred Owen, and more recent writers that discussed the Second World War, right up to Simon Armitage who wrote a wonderful piece about the Iraq conflict. We were given an exercise to come up with a poem that expressed what it would be like for a soldier to miss his home comforts and compare his old life to that of a soldier at war. I wrote the following (probably my favourite of the poems I wrote this weekend):
The memories of beer and sex
Are faded now, already dead.
My iPod and my MTV
Replaced at last by IEDs
And UAVs and Taliban,
The poppy fields of Flanders fame
Transplanted to Afghanistan
By deep-set men in shallow graves.
We were then asked to consider a war that had affected us personally, and reflect on who had won, who had lost, and what had they won or lost. When I was about 12, the Falklands War was happening, and like any young boy, I got caught up in the excitement. My broken Action Men stopped being Germans and started being Argentinians. So I wrote this:
The sheep clung to the hillside
As the South Atlantic wind
Had Argentinian accents:
The army's coming in.
General Galtieri,
Franco on the cheap,
Had launched a quick invasion:
Give me back those British sheep!
Thatcher was the winner,
The election was khaki.
I may have been a schoolboy
But I was old enough to see
If the government's in trouble,
They make the soldiers roam.
If they give us outside enemies
We forget the ones at home.
I'm not happy about the end of this, but I ran out of time. I may revisit it later. The last war poem we had to write was one about the delivery of bad news to a relative. I came up with the following:
Gloved knuckles on a painted wooden door
Sergeant-major, crown and stripes on his arm
Beret under epaulette

Door opens
Drained, drawn face
Realisation dawning
Long hard swallow

He says "I'm afraid I have some bad news"
She says "I know"

Door slams
Crying footsteps

He walks to the staff car
And drives to his next victim
One down, six to go
Maybe I had learnt something from the experimental poetry class after all. I usually have much more punctuation and full sentences in my poems.

All in all, it was an excellent weekend. Half a hundred people were brought together by a shared love of poetry. We drove for 5 hours to get there (thanks Michael!). Others came from much further. One came from Exeter, another from Cornwall. The quality of the poetry was amazing. We had open mic nights on both Friday and Saturday evening, where we would read our poems to a rapturous audience of fellow enthusiasts, and to be honest, just being with that many poets would have been worth the cost and travelling alone. Factor in the excellent (although mainly vegetarian) food, the workshops and the accomodation and the £50 fee was embarrassingly low.

And poets are so eloquent. I couldn't get up the seven-foot vertical ladder to my bunk bed (dodgy knee playing up) and had to sleep in the lounge, but no-one said my snoring was merely loud or offensive. It was described as 'operatic, in a full-blooded baritone'.

You've got to love poets. They can find a decorative way to describe anything.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Almost There!

There are now only twelve days left until my book is launched! I'm ridiculously, childishly excited about this. The local Waterstones has been booked, my lovely publishers are laying on drinks and goody bags and I have a big stack of posters that I need to distribute to local shops and pubs.

This is a completely new experience for me. I've never had a book out, never seen my face on a professionally printed poster before (when I had various bands, my wife used to design posters for gigs, but this is the first time I've seen something that wasn't produced on an inkjet). I have been plugging the book to almost everyone I met for months now. I don't think there's anyone I know that isn't aware I have a book coming out.

I pity my poor friends on Facebook. Almost all of my posts recently have mentioned the book in some way. There's an application that tells you your most-used words. Number two on my list was 'book'. Number one was 'watching', but that's just because I often complain about what's on TV while I post. There's always something to complain about. Nothing to complain about with the book, of course! It's almost perfect.

I say it's almost perfect because there were a couple of poems I wrote that were too late for inclusion. One I've already given (An Epitaph for Justice can be found here) but there was also one about winning the poetry competition. My publishers had asked for this months ago, but typically, I didn't have any ideas about how to start it until it was too late. Oh well. Consider this to be a blog exclusive! The poem is here:

Two Words

Two words
Short ones too
A name
My name
Andrew Barber

I don't hear these words very often
The doctor
The dentist
The nasal Tannoy
For the deli counter drones
At the council offices

I hear them most
From my own mouth
Hello insert name here
I'm Andrew Barber
Shake the hand
Flash the eye contact
I'm not scared
Feel how firm my grip

And once
I heard two words from a stage
Short words
A name
And the winner is...
Insert my name here...
I've won

And everything changed