Improvised Word Salads: a verbal experiment

I’d like some feedback on an experiment that may grow into a project or turn out to be a blind alley.

I call these “Word Salads”. They are improvised lists of words, spoken with minimal expression. I think they should give rise to cascading imagery in the minds of listeners. Because they are improvised, they are unique phenomena, ephemeral, immediate and unpredictable.

The first example here is a “dissociated improvisation”. As with all sorts of improvisation, there must be some rule. We have all played the word association game, but this tries to be a solo word dissociation game. It is very difficult to do as I don’t think it is possible for the mind to work without association. There are probably really three or four rapid associative steps between each word. Sometimes I am aware of this happening as I grasp for the next thing to say.

Without any context, the words become quite strange, I think, but each one has the power to evoke something, like the edge of a fin appearing momentarily above the water before disappearing again.

The second example tries to tell a story of some sort. The rule of this improvisation is that a narrative is allowed to take shape, although it has not been predetermined in any way.

See what you think.

So …

Would these have any potential for performance? I think their improvisatory qualities make them exciting for the speaker if not the hearer. Are they evocative or just monotonous? Could I go anywhere with this or should I stop wasting my time?

Going Public with Two More Audio Poems: some desolation and some adoration

Encouraged in no small way by Xe Sands, the curator of weekly audio gems at Going Public and one of the great cheerleaders among my online fellowship of creatives, I have been experimenting with sharing my poetry out loud. I have always written more for the ear than the eye, so it seems an appropriate medium for putting it out there.

For this week’s offering, I have picked a couple of poems scribbled in my teens and recently re-worked.

The first poem (Empty House) is what comes out when you read a lot of Craig Raine, you feel as if the whole world is against you and one day you come home to an empty house.

The second poem (Silver Story) is what comes out when you read a lot of the Elizabethans, you spend your weekends in your silversmithing workshop and one day you meet a beautiful woman.

More of my poetry postings can be found here.
More audio goodies can be found here.

Creativity and the Edge Effect or “Yo-Yo Ma and Monkeys”

Earlier this week (8th April), Yo-Yo Ma delivered the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy the Kennedy Centre in Washington.

He called it “Art for Life’s Sake: A Roadmap from One Citizen Musician”, and it is well worth reading the transcript or watching the talk. As he champions the cultivation of collaboration, flexibility, imagination, and innovation, his vision of the future workforce is neatly echoed by a new study from Wikia and Ipsos MediaCT called “GenZ: The Limitless Generation”, which suggests these are the very strengths that Generation Z will bring to the table.

However, when Yo-Yo Ma articulates how a biological phenomenon, “the edge effect”, applies to the arts, you can hear the rubber biting the tarmac. This is not new, but he puts it well:

“In ecology, where two ecosystems meet, such as the forest and the savannah, the point of intersection is the site of “edge effect.” In that transition zone, because of the influence the two ecological communities have on each other, you find the greatest diversity of life, as well as the greatest number of new life forms.”

In my final year as an undergraduate in Anthropology, an interest in the edge effect drove me to spend five weeks studying Cercopithecus aethiops (the vervet monkey) in the wild.

Vervet Monkey
Vervet Monkey (Via Wikipedia)

This primate is virtually ubiquitous in sub-Saharan Africa, having even adapted to urban settings in some cases. They also have one of the most complex documented “languages” or systems of calls and vocalisations of any species. I had an inkling that, in some way, the complexity of their language would be matched by a fluidity in social organisation and driven by their occupation of marginal environments (edges) and, ultimately, the physical distribution of their food.

Without boring you with the details, in grossly simplified terms, a gorilla sits around and grunts a lot because most of his food is the same and in the same place. He also has a rigid social structure that has to do with who gets to sit in the middle, eat the good stuff and who defends the territory. The vervet, on the other hand, exploits a huge variety of foods, distributed almost randomly in a marginal environment with lots of space in between. He has to have a language to talk to his tribe fifty meters away and tell them where the good stuff is (or the bad stuff, like predators or anthropologists). He also doesn’t benefit hugely from eating in the same tree as everyone else, so social structure is more “easy-come-easy-go”.

Why does this matter? I asked myself that a few hundred times as I tried to follow the critters for hours through dense bush on mosquito-bitten legs. But it seems likely that innovations, such as language and walking upright, happened under very similar circumstances in the mysterious pre-prehistory of our own species.

Back to the Kennedy centre …

Ma brings on a series of artistes to illustrate the edge effect. What does it look like, for instance, when Lil’ Buck performs his own street-forged dance moves to “The Swan” by Saint-Saens?

He then points out that the pianist on stage with him, Cristina Pato, is also Cristina Pato the bagpipe player from Galicia, a member of the Silk Road Ensemble, who just released her first jazz CD.

“One might say she is an artist who creates her own edge effect!”

That fascinates me!

I don’t think we are particularly comfortable with polymaths these days. Fame, success means being the biggest fish in one pond, not the second biggest in two, or the third biggest in three ponds.

I’m not a Leonardo da Vinci and nor are you (probably), but what can I do to be less of a gorilla: to occupy and exploit the fringes where linguistic innovation flourishes and social interaction is open and uncharted?

Firstly, as someone who primarily wordsmiths, I don’t hang out much with other writers. I love you guys (and gals), hugely, but sometimes I feel mildly threatened because we are grazing the same patch. Hooking me up with a muso, thesp, calligrapher, or chef is more likely to bring out the best in me (with the exception of a mime, perhaps).

Secondly, I hate it when people wibble on about “getting out of your comfort zone”. This is probably because I’m very happy in my comfort zone, thank you, but I’m also very tired of the cliché. Is there a better way to put it?

  • Induce a creative crisis (go analogue for a week).
  • Go on an artist date (indulge in thrill-seeking).
  • Study a parallel discipline (photographers, pick up a paint brush).
  • Throw away the dummy (burn those notebooks, there are plenty of fresh ideas where those ones came from).
  • Move the furniture around (sit next to someone different at the next meeting).
  • Get into your collaboration zone (thanks to one of my favourite collaborators, noahsapprentice, for this suggestion)

Whatever it takes …

How might you create your own edge effect?

I’m just kidding about the mime, by the way.

Love in a Mist and other Spring-related Juvenilia

Love-in-a-mist, devil in the bush Español: Ara...
Love-in-a-mist

It’s a morning in May 1993, I’m 16 years old. I step out into our garden after breakfast. Beyond the garden fence, there is an orchard and then a steep, treed slope down to the river Thames. It is spring; I can hear skylarks and boats chugging lazily up the river. There is still dew on the grass. Somewhere between the flowerbeds of giant poppies, Love in a Mist, and Borage, I am struck by a feeling of  “at-one-ness” that I have never forgotten – everything seems stitched together. There have been several moments like this in my life (another one was in a pool of light under a streetlamp in Reading one rainy night), and I often feel closer to them at this time of year … Spring.

Quite soon after this intimation, I stitched together a naive poem that I still don’t really understand but which seemed to fix that moment in the garden like a photograph for me. I grew Nigella damascena (Love in a Mist) in my flowerbed when I was a youngster, and it is probably my favourite cultivated flower.

Here is an audio of the poem, “Love in a Mist” by my 16 year-old self, read by my 20-years-later self. This is followed by “A Daydream”, written the following year while I was travelling in Africa – somehow the two always seem to have come from the same stable in my psyche. Both seem to be haunted by a mermaid of some sort …

A Dragon at the Core of Literature: 1,500-year-old writing advice from China

Wanglongsi zaoxiang
Wanglongsi zaoxiang (Via Wikipedia)

Liu Xie (c.470-539 AD) was a literary critic during the Liang Dynasty, a time and place where to become a writer was a matter of a long apprenticeship in courts or monasteries and even bureaucratic documentation was a work of art. His great work “Carving a Dragon at the Core of Literature” captures both the mysticism and asceticism of the writer’s craft in all times and in all places. Although this work is about fifteen thousand years old, I go back to it repeatedly for a fresh vision and, at times, a stern talking to, in the great tradition of far eastern masters.

My translation (by the brilliant Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang) is in a rare volume of assorted prose and poetry from the Han, Wei and Six Dynasties, published in Beijing by Panda in 1986. I found this book and appropriated it from my parent’s bookshelves a long time ago. It still contains scribbled marginal notes in my 15-year-old’s handwriting – from my Buddhist phase.

The tract as good as opens with these fine words, enough to bring anyone back to the page with fresh expectancy:

“Thoughts shaped in silence can reach a thousand generations to come.”

Liu Xie is a proponent of an immersive, intentional and disciplined approach to writing that involves every level of an author’s being:

“A man should cleanse his heart, purify his spirit, amass knowledge to store up learning, use reason to increase his capabilities, study things carefully to improve his powers of observation, and train himself in the use of the right phrase. Then the mind, pre-eminent, can seek out rhythm to guide the pen and like a skilled craftsman give fitting form to ideas.”

He goes on to give “fancy” its rightful place as “the prime requirement in writing”, assuming that the previous stipulations on spiritual purity and training have been fulfilled, of course:

“When we give rein to our fancy, innumerable paths open up ahead; we plot any course we please, inlay any invisible pattern. Would we climb a mountain? Our spirit soars above it. Survey the ocean? Our ideas reach over the sea. Whatever talents we have seem to race with the wind and the clouds; we take up a pen, inspired beyond all telling, but the work when written may express only half of what was in our hearts. This is because an idea not yet formulated may easily seem striking but it is hard to set down skilfully in so many words. Thoughts pass into ideas, ideas into language, sometimes corresponding so closely that no discrepancy exists, sometimes so loosely that a thousand li stretch between. An argument may be at hand while you seek it at the horizon; an idea may be hard by yet hid from your mind as if by mountains and rivers. So to improve his writing a man should train his mind and not count on simply cudgelling his brains. Once he knows the right way to express himself, no undue exertions are needed.”

Next, he suggests that some thinkers are slow and spend years conceiving, executing and polishing their work, while others are quick and discharge treatises between waking and taking breakfast. Wherever you fall on the spectrum between these extremes, you must embrace it.

I am very thankful to be closer to the fast end: I’m already almost bored with writing this post (in my lunch break). In a few minutes, I’ll hit “publish” without reviewing it, and I’ll move on to the next thing. I’ll probably never produce a great work like Zuo Si who spent a dozen years on his essay on the Three Imperial Cities, but I can live with that.

I get the impression that Liu Xie is telling us that, as long as the work of studying the classics, “delving into changes in style, and understanding the forms of literature” has been done “, we can “give birth to new ideas and fashion striking images” according the speed of our thought, but almost unconsciously.

Learning to write well is like learning to drive skilfully, it becomes a matter of muscle memory and reflex, with long practice and deep immersion in the canon of all ages.

Later in the work, he attacks those who “counterfeit feeling” for the sake of art. He points out that the composers of old folk songs genuinely gave voice to their anguish but that many later poets feigned sentiment for the sake of a dazzling turn of phrase. It’s a timely reminder of the need to write what we know, from the heart. This is absolutely one of my values as a wordsmith; when we tell lies, we do it with words, and yet we also propagate truth, clarity and revelation with words.

There is a sense throughout “Carving a Dragon at the Core of Literature” of the office that writers hold and the service that writers provide to society, and of the seriousness with which this must be taken. This was ever the way in less literate times and places, where even the ability to reproduce and comprehend the shapes of alphabets and pictographies was for an elite. In spite of the great syndication of the scribe’s art that has taken place since Caxton, I think there are still those who are entrusted with the continuation of this special role in relation to how humanity thinks aloud about itself … on paper.

“We cannot meet the men of old face to face, but by reading their works we can see into their hearts … A man of deep understanding and keen observation will have the same pleasure in his mind as a crowd of revellers on the terrace in spring or travellers stopping for good music and food. Just as the orchid, king of fragrant flowers, becomes more fragrant when worn; so books, which are sovereign flowers too, reveal their beauty when studied and analysed. Let men of discrimination ponder this!”

The Next Big Thing: My Work In Progress?

So Gillian over at skybluepinkish tagged me in a desperate bid to get me to blog something.

Thank you, Gillian, you have done me a favour!

This tag is part of a global blogfest encouraging writers to let everyone in to their current work in progress. I’m not sure mine is “the next big thing” but I would like to have it done by the end of this year.

Cue the tape … here goes:

What is the working title of your book?

It’s called “The Coat and Ring”, which, in the great tradition of Grimm’s fairy tales, does what it says on the tin – a coat and a ring being major players in the life of the protagonist. Theologians may notice a tenuous reference to the return of the prodigal son in the title, too:

“Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.”

This wouldn’t be entirely coincidental.

Where did the idea for your book come from?

The whole thing was mapped out in essence in a dream I had while resting on my bed one afternoon about six years ago. I often take a nap in the afternoon and this is a good time for dreaming. Soon after that I used it as a tale to tell friends on long walks. When I came to writing it down (intending a short story) it sort of grew beyond control.

What genre does your book fall under?

Romantic Faerie Phantasy (not romance, fairy or fantasy)

Which actors would you choose to play characters in a movie rendition?

The protagonist is told from the first person. He’s in his 20s and grappling with the transition into adulthood. He’s just a kid, really, who finds himself boxing way above his weight. His origins are a bit mysterious. He needs blue eyes. He is James Mcavoy!

James McAvoy
Photo by gdcgraphics via flickr

Then there’s the avuncular “Terrence”, an epicurian patriarch who presides over a year-long banquet in his mansions, which are built over an oasis. He is Donald Sutherland.

Donald Sutherland
Photo by Alan Light

There’s a merchant turned adventurer called Selwyn.

“His eyes were set deep in a wrinkled, nut-brown face, glowing out at me with a couple of pinpoints of reflected light that nevertheless seemed to come from inside him. The edges of his ragged moustache concealed the corners of his mouth which, by the laughter in his eyes, must have been turned up in a friendly grin – although it was difficult to be sure. Like a man who has been in the sun all day and who through the night gives off the radiance of what he has absorbed, I felt a strong glow from him. It was impossible to tell his age for his skin was well weathered by the elements rather than age and he gave off an air of rude health”.

I’m thinking … Daniel Day Lewis.

English: Actor Daniel Day-Lewis in New York on...

Finally there’s the girl. She’s descended from a family that made its living from the sea and she is rumoured to have a dash of mermaid blood in her veins. I need someone suitably ethereal, oddly otherworldly. This was tricky but I’m casting Lily Cole:

Lily Cole 5
Photo Credit GabboT via flickr

Next question …

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

An inheritance was a blessing, and then a curse, and a blessing once again.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

For me the arguments weigh in favour of going the indy route.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I’m a year in but I don’t think I could call it a first draft just yet.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

It is strongly influenced by George MacDonald and falls somewhere between The Phantastes and Donal Grant. I also would place it on the shelf alongside some of Paul Gallico‘s wonderful tales like The Man Who Was Magic and The Snow Goose. There’s also a touch of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and The Little Prince about it. I guess them’s my influences.

Who or what inspired you to write this book (story)?

The authors mentioned above but probably George MacDonald more than anyone else. I spent the best part of 2010 immersed in his work and still feel as if I have only just scratched the surface. He had a comprehensive understanding of the thin veil between our waking reality and the mythopeic unseen that is mediated through our imaginations.

The story has also become a receptacle for a lot of observations and thoughts garnered from my surroundings while I have been out walking the dog so it boils down to GM and my dog, really.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? 

If you have ever felt like a doormat, become resentful that others have taken advantage of your generosity and grown fat upon your labours, then this story is for you. If you have gone through life burdened by the magnificence of your family’s good name or the perceived expectations of your parents and forbears then this story is also for you. If you long to throw everything to the wind and start afresh, then it is for you, too. If you have a colourful imagination and can let yourself go into a strange world, then you’ll be ready to read “The Coat and Ring” – just as soon as I finish writing it 😉

….

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