I couldn’t let this moment pass without a tip of the hat towards National Poetry Day. As previously mentioned on this blog, I’m semi-regular at a writing group in Second Life, and it forces me to churn out something in 20 minutes. Sometimes, with a little polishing, I’m reasonably content with these.
There’s this pebble that makes me feel small
But I can hold it in my palm
Broken, sheerly like a miniature cliff
Inlaid with lines, pencil fine
By spirit-level silty seas, advancing, retiring, layering
Then squeezed, tectonic tight
Then baked in earth’s belly and uncovered
By archaeologist’s brushes of
Wind and water
Shorn by ice and rolled in the tide
It’s just those lines, no thicker than a fingernail
Each a few thousand years deep
That make me feel
In accents deep set or bulging, narrow or wide, turned up or down
With lumen whites for a larynx, elastic lids for vocal cords
Blinking like a cursor
Pupil and iris for tongue and teeth
Punctuation marks, up or down at the end of sentences
Or hovering for emphasis
In accents fine or rough, round and knobbled, flecked like bark
Or medieval tones of lily white
They have ten inflections, each topped by a nail
Their salute is mightier than the sword
Speaking without boundaries of language
Forceful words seldom misinterpreted
They even vote and carry on political campaigns
With the whole entourage of body
All at once achatter
I’m not alone am I? I mean, most guys in their thirties … with a waistline you don’t want to be reminded of, and a knee-jerk cynicism about the world … most guys are wondering what happened to that little boy they once were: his focus, his energy, his passion, his fundamental optimism … his innocence?
A mid-life crisis? It’s basically a second adolescence where the question has changed from ‘who do I want to be?’ to ‘who have I become?’
There are a few things that make me feel sixteen. One of them is swimming in open water, another is listening to jazz, old jazz, New Orleans jazz from the early 20th century. That’s essentially the sound-track of my teens.
How do you rebel in a world of non-conformists?
It’s a strange choice, but honestly it was about the only avenue left open to express my rebellion, while I was trying to be a non-conformist like everyone else. My peers were listening to Nine Inch Nails, Portishead, House of Pain, Iron Maiden, Guns N’ Roses. My family (and music teachers) listened to baroque and classical music. Even the lefty teachers listened to New Model Army and The Levellers. I got captivated by the energy and optimism of jazz, and later found in it a voice for the melancholia and rebellion I treasured in my adolescent heart.
I started out taping jazz radio programs on BBC Radio 3. I ended up collecting photos of jazz musicians, reading every scrap of jazz history I could find and spending every break time on a piano in the music school. This music became one of my earliest mentors and I’m only discovering now how much it set my expectations and shaped my outlook. That boy I once was is still fundamentally running the show from a speakeasy in the back of my mind.
Freelancing is the highest form of employment
For instance, I don’t think I’ve ever questioned my assumption that freelancing is the highest form of employment. I learned this from my trumpet-blowing heroes. At the end of the day, they had themselves, they had soul and a horn to blow it out from. They pitched up, they did their thing, then they disappeared back into the night, beholden to nobody. If they were good, they got booked; if they weren’t hot enough, they got cut. If they got into self-destructive habits, they burned their career, because they were inseparable from it.
That’s it, you know, these musicians stood or fell on the basis of something that it was quite impossible to fake. You can paint jazz by numbers, and I’ve heard plenty of these guys who have emerged from conservatories who can run up and down scales very prettily — but the elusive elements of soul, swing and hotness … sticks out a mile.
Of course I’m romanticising it – but it’s the myth that wired me to be a freelancer.
I have no idea what’s going to happen, and I love it
Then there’s my almost-pathological preference for spontaneity. My heroes were (and still are) improvisers. None of them would pitch up to a jam session and ask to see the score, or dream of showing up with a bunch of pre-rehearsed licks. They’d internalised the outer forms and the inner core of their art a long time before they stepped up to the mic.
I can’t see the problem with going by the seat of your pants as long as, you know, you made those pants yourself, you know they are up to the job, and you carry a sewing kit in case they get torn
I still believe that you’ve gotta be a sponge and soak in stuff, so when you get poked that’s what comes out. If it’s not in you already, it’s too darn late to start preparing now. Being an improviser isn’t about not being prepared, it’s about the preparation happening over years in the past.
Individualism can coexist with collectivism
Then take the matter of ‘teamwork’, ‘leadership’ and all those buzz words you’ll never find on the sleeve notes of a hot record. My take on these tings is still cast acccording to the loose categories of ‘ensemble’, ‘soloist’ and ‘bandleader’.
The feature that makes early New-Orlenian jazz so special compared to what followed is the ‘ensemble’. Everyone plays together – everyone improvises together. It’s not about the solos, like it is today. You might not hear any solos; sometimes the most a single instrumentalist gets to play in the limelight is a four-bar break to key the ensemble back in.
The phenomenon of a band leader is an interesting one in this egalitarian context. From my reading of early jazz history the bandleader is:
needed by the entertainment industry so they have a name they can use to sell records and attract the punters (‘Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers’ is going to sell better than ‘some guys with horns and stuff who happened to be available on Friday afternoon’)
the one with the personal influence, the network and the contacts (in modern business terms) to convene an assortment of seasoned musicians who are going to sound good together (the cats dig him/her enough to pitch up)
someone who has to take care of that client-facing stuff, you know, and make sure everyone gets paid if they’ve been sober
None of that means the band leader is any kind of big-shot when it comes to the team performing (or the band playing).
Classic New-Orleans jazz is a shining example of how both individualism and collectivism can play loud and strong together in society. I guess I’m holding out for that.
That’s almost enough said … yup, enough. I’ll just let the music speak for itself. This is Black Bottom Stomp (it still raises the hairs on my neck):
I have ‘artists envy’ for folks who seem to be able to finish stuff.
When it comes to creativity, I can go some way with the saying “It’s more about the journey than the destination,” but surely the full miracle of creative work is in that breathless moment when you can stand back and say, “It’s done.” That’s the elusive hit we’re really looking for. Something is not created until it’s completed and a thing, be it a sculpture, picture, story or performance, stands where before there was no thing.
I think some of us are scared to finish. As long as a work is in progress, it has the potential to be awesome. Once it’s done, it’s either awesome or not. I’m certainly scared to finish things. I trail so many works-in-progress, the drag can be crippling.
This week I’ve been rescued by a little thing called Six Minute Story. I wouldn’t have given it the time of day if not for the suggestion of one of those artists I envy, Xe Sands, who is such a sparkling enthusiast for creativity in general and words in particular that not going along with something she’s excited about would feel like telling a kid that she couldn’t have an ice cream.
Six Minute Story gives you a random writing prompt and a box in which you have just six minutes to write a story. And that’s it … If it doesn’t work out, you can hit refresh and try again.
It’s heady stuff. You go from nothing to done in less time than it takes to hang out the laundry. It’s helped me to write a few stand-alone bites that I’m moderately happy about and to experience repeatedly the breathless moment of “It’s done.”
Throughout September, Xe’s ‘Going Public Project‘, which propagates contributed recordings of literature from the public domain and creative commons, is showing off stuff from Six Minute Story. Anyone can get involved even if, like me, you thought writing prompts were twee and ‘flash fiction’ was not quite ‘proper’.
I’m pretty stoked because this week’s post features a snippet of Xe’s voice doing my words and frankly that’s another tick on my bucket list.
So, my writerly readers, go here to start your own six-minute adventure. Or go here to listen to this week’s offerings and find out more about the Going Public Six Minute Story September challenge.
I have been labouring my way through the complete tales of the brothers Grimm, on and off, for the last three years. At first, there were curious and enchanting moments but, I have to admit, it has felt more ‘uphill’ recently. I’m not sure how to understand the resurgence of interest in Will and Jake’s collection. There has been a popular TV series and a couple of movies have tried to reclaim the tales for the dark side, after years of disneyfication; Philip Pullman has turned his pen to them, and several others have delighted in re-working them for the ‘Potter, Buffy and Twilight’ generation.
Having almost finished reading the complete works, I have my own take on the oeuvre.
When the brothers rolled into a village on their collecting expeditions, I reckon that the locals thought it would be a jolly jape to ply them with schnapps and treat them to lengthy, extemporized tales that endlessly recombined a basket of popular motifs in spirals of fantasy. These plot lines were not authentically handed down through the generations until they were captured and immortalised with pen and ink; they were made upon the spot, like the rambling narratives that children play out in the tree house and at the bottom of the garden or the anecdotes of a boozy uncle who can’t remember the end from the beginning.
For example, here is the tale of the Three Black Princesses. It is wryly amusing for the fact that it barely goes anywhere, it is clearly unfinished and there are some serious issues with overall coherence. I hope my rendition is faithful to the original.
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.