Saturday, 28 January 2012

Chimney Cat

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. I used to think that cats were one of those more equal animals, but I have changed my mind. I would now always choose dogs over cats, without a second thought.

The reasons for this are threefold. Number one - I fell in love with a dog called Jac Custo. I could write a whole blog about him, but I won't, because it would be on a level with mums cooing about their newborn babies, and no-one would read it.

Number two - I had a lodger who had three cats. I was more than happy to welcome said cats into my home, and they were very sweet animals, but having cats in the house was not the happy dream I imagined it would be. They had a smelly litter tray and were forever bringing dead mice into the house. When the cats moved out, I was actually quite happy to have the bathroom smelling better and no chance of standing on a desiccated mouse when I opened my bedroom door of a morning.

The third reason for my about-face on cats has a name. A name that strikes fear into the heart of all who know it... and that name is Chimney Cat.

Chimney Cat (who, for the purposes of this post, I shall assume is a he) is a chunky fella. He's black and white and built a bit like a tank. He frequently jumps down from the neighbours' fence onto our outside window sill and always lands with enough of a bang that we can hear him quite clearly over the telly. I don't want anyone getting the wrong idea... Chimney Cat is not a waif or stray who needs feeding up. Chimney Cat can clearly look after himself.

Picture the scene... this was the day that my aforementioned lodger had moved out. She had gone during the day while I was at uni, so I came home to a very empty house - albeit a house with the catflap still in operation. I was on the phone to my the Best Male Member of Team Ginger when I came in the door. I sat myself down on the sofa and continued to gossip with my venerable friend when a kerfuffle, as yet undefined, suddenly seemed to be happening in the periphery of my vision.

I whipped my head round, expecting to see at worst a mouse or at best an armed burglar... what I actually did see was, I maintain to this day, the most unexpected thing I have ever seen in my life. What I saw was the back half of Chimney Cat - lower back, bum, back legs, tail - disappearing up the chimney (hence the name).

This happened so cleanly, so easily, that I swear to god it looked like someone was lurking in the chimney, waiting, hands out-stretched, to pull the cat up there. It seemed as though he'd stepped onto a lift that zoomed him up to the next floor. It was like he had been beamed up, Scotty. It was the weirdest thing I had ever seen, this cat I hadn't even known was in the house vanishing cleanly and vertically up the chimney.

I, of course, screamed like a girl and deafened my poor friend on the phone. I wasn't scared, I was just really, really surprised. And also a little concerned that the cat was going to stay in the chimney forever and die in there, the way that lost birds do sometimes.

After some conversation with my friend, I got on my knees and had a look up the chimney for Chimney Cat, and to my amazement, saw him perched on a ledge which I hadn't even realised was there, looking as at home as Stig in a dump and staring coolly back at me.

Clearly, this cat had been in this position many, many times before without me realising and considered this His Chair.

I ended my phone call and concentrated my efforts on getting this cat out of my house. I was a bit reluctant to stick my arm up there, as waving your hand at a cornered, unhappy animal is never really the best idea, so I got some water and flicked it at Chimney Cat, who couldn't have cared less.

At this point, I got a broom and very, very gently (don't go calling the RSPCA on me, it was done with love, honest) prodded the cat.

THIS had an effect. Suddenly, Chimney Cat had become a banshee, flying out of the chimney and around the walls of my living room, soot and fur following in his wake like pollution from an oil rig. Foolishly, I had imagined coaxing the animal gently back out the back door from whence he had come, but I could now see that this cat was not going to be coaxed anywhere. He ended up sat on the front window sill, clawing at the window, so I had to just let him out that way, whereby he went flying into the road and I sat back on the sofa nursing a minor heart attack.

I was slightly worried at the time that the cat would be hit by a car or not find his way home, but I am now convinced that a ten-ton lorry couldn't kill this cat... and with his usual not-so-light footed thump he landed back outside the window some days later and looked inside. This time, I could tell that he was eyeing the living room up, wondering why he couldn't get back to his chair.

The second encounter with Chimney Cat was somewhat more terrifying, I must say. This was some months later, in the middle of the night. I'm going to prefix this part of the story by pointing out that, as part of my bid to sleep better, my room is, thanks to some black-out blinds, pitchy, midnight, opening-your-eyes-makes-no-difference dark at all times. Well, at all night times, not during the day - that would be silly. This makes it very hard to work out what's going on if anything a bit remiss happens.

So when another kerfuffle happened - waking me out of a pretty deep sleep - it was very hard to see what it was. It was loud enough to make me sit right up in bed, though, and I then saw what was probably, this time, the scariest thing I've ever seen in my life.

One of the aforementioned blackout blinds was being pushed forward, suggesting that something - or someone - was climbing in the window. It was the whole blind moving forward (they're reasonably stiff, so move as one), suggesting that the thing climbing in through the window was roughly the size of a person. I was completely certain that this was going to be a burglar with a knife gripped between his teeth, and that I was going to be stabbed in my bed. It was genuinely terrifying.

Acting purely on instinct, I shouted out 'WHAT!', and then there was a noise, and then something dashed from the room and out the door (my door doesn't shut very well), and I was left utterly confused.

I managed to get myself out of bed to go and look behind the blind (which took some nerves of steel, I'm telling you), but nothing was there. I couldn't even see anything knocked over. I was too sleepy and confused to check downstairs, so I decided it must have either been a mouse, in which case I really didn't want to find it, or a figment of my imagination, in which case I would never be able to find it, and  so I went back to bed.

Some hours later, I woke up in somewhat better circumstances and went downstairs. I sat myself on the sofa and started telling the internet the story of what had happened (after all, everyone knows that nothing has actually happened until you post it on Facebook), drawing the same conclusion that I must have dreamed it.

I pressed send on my post, and decided to pop the leg rest out on my sofa, which has Lazy-Boy seats at either end of it (jealous? You should be). I did this, and then what I can only describe as an earthquake exploded under my chair, rattling it up and down so that it was actually lifting it off the floor - bouncing and bouncing and not ceasing.

My first thought was, again, serial killer, but I quickly realised that this was actually an animal. I got as far as wondering if it could be a fox, then rabbit (neither guess makes much sense, I realise) before deciding I'd better get myself off the damn sofa as the bouncing was clearly never going to stop until I did... so I bounded up and over towards the kitchen door...

And out from under the sofa, so louche he could practically have had a cigarette hanging from his lips and a trilby tilted over one eye, strolled Chimney Cat - clearly, it had been him behind the blind all along.

Things all went a bit quiet on the Chimney Cat front for about 8 months after that. He would still thud onto the window sill, at which point he would have fists shaken at him, and he would still eye the living room up, but he didn't make it back in until one night last week.

On this particular night, only my boyfriend and I were in the house... he downstairs with insomnia, me upstairs with it, oh the joys. I'm realising, as I'm writing this, that we're going to end on a bit of an anti-climax, as this is really more the fella's story to tell than mine... he was the one who, this time, was scared half to death by Chimney Cat (how is he getting in? How? How?)... and he was the one who had to try to get him out the house... on this occasion the bloody cat ran all the way upstairs and chose to exit out of a first storey window... I just heard the noises and was told about it. So I cannot retell the story with my usual over-egging of detail. All I can do is keep an eye on the chimney, and keep you updated with That Cat's exploits...

Friday, 20 January 2012

The Tragic Story of the Ill-Fated Lovers, Romy and Julian, Aged Seven (Part III)

And here is the finished poem... enjoy!

Our heroine, named Romy, was
a tubby, ginger, gypsy girl. 
Born in Cornish caravan,
hidden away from the real world. 
She made origami rabbits 
as life-like as the real thing –
her only friends were the squirrels
whom she took under wing. 

Romy’s terrible luck began 
as a not-so bonny baby. 
Just the merest smidgeon of wheat 
made her insides swell up like crazy. 
To add insult to injury, 
our Romy was such a klutz, 
she'd trip over her neighbour's shoes,
and was always covered in cuts. 

Romy thought she’d hit rock bottom
when her fam'ly moved to London – 
how was our girl to know that there
was so much worse to come? – 
How she wept to swap her beach view 
for a north London grey high rise… 
her only comfort was – she had no friends 
with whom to swap goodbyes. 

By the first day at her new school, 
our gal was beaming full of pride. 
Her new Miffy lunchbox full of  
soy lentil cupcakes at her side. 
The other girls, who scorned Miffy, 
stared at this strange new girl in shock. 
This fat gypsy who talked to squirrels
had entire'ly the wrong lunch-box! 

Now, stage right, enter Julian  
our ill-fated, troubled hero, 
with ink smudged on his skinny face, 
twigs in his unruly afro. 
Clamped in his right hand at all times
was his trusty blue inhaler, 
which guarded him from asthma and 
made him feel a total failure. 

But worse than this, our Julian
alas, had found himself twice cursed, 
suffering not just from asthma, 
but from another fate, much worse! 
If e'er a seven-year-old boy 
wants to have no friends, forever, 
he should use words like ‘vociferous’
and hence be known as clever. 

At one o’clock on this dark noon, 
our heroes were finger painting. 
Blissfully so unaware their
hearts would soon be syncopating! 
The teacher, Miss Anthropy, 
sharp clapped her hands and called out ‘lunch!’ 
Packs of mean girls eyed up Romy, 
wond’ring who'd would throw that first punch. 

The blondest girl smiled toxicly, 
and offered Romy up a cake, 
Poor Romy took it trustingly, 
no idea the girl’s grin was fake. 
“Is this wheat free?” the girl said yes, 
innocent Romy had been tricked! 
Her tummy started to swell and so
she didn’t see her lunch tin get nicked! 

As was the way when she ate wheat
- I should warn you, it's far from cute - 
Romy got bloated, her face went red,
and her bottom began to toot!
The mean girls fell about laughing,
Romy waved farewell to her pride.
As her parps filled the dining hall,
our shamed heroine fled outside. 

Julian was eating alone
when he saw Romy’s Miffy tin. 
The lentil cakes were strewn about,
and the metal had been kicked in. 
Our Jules, who'd always liked rabbits,
picked it up, admired the front. 
“Who does this belong to?” he thought, 
“I’d better go on a hunt…” 

Julian set off with the lunch tin,
looked round his usual haunts for the owner.
They weren’t lurking in the cloakroom
or in a corner, like a loner. 
They weren’t locked inside a toilet,
so he tried the deserted shack, 
but looking stirred up so much dust
it sparked off an asthma attack! 

Outside with his blue inhaler,
he just couldn’t believe what he saw
a beauty talking to squirrels – 
our Julian’s jaw hit the floor. 
As Julian spotted Romy, 
this was purest love at first sight, 
he felt as though all his bad luck 
had clean disappeared overnight. 

Romy looked up from the squirrels 
and her eyes met Julian’s eyes. 
She felt her little gypsy heart
grow to twice its normal size. 
He held out her Miffy lunchbox
and she reached her hands towards his… 
both were too shy to speak, but knew 
they wanted to share a chaste kiss. 

Fair listeners, as you may have guessed, 
the path to true love is bumpy. 
As our lovers go dewey eyed, 
cruel fate sticks in her nose – see 
as violins swell in his ears,
and Romy burns bright red, 
a passing seagull spots our pair 
and drops his load right on her head! 

Why some people call that lucky, 
no, I could never quite surmise – 
I doubt Romy thought it lucky 
when creamy bird poo filled her eyes! 
Crying out, she stumbled off
and from our Julian, she fled,
leaving him wringing his damp hands
calling, "was it something I said?" 

Julian tried to sleep that night
in the room he shared with his brothers,
his thoughts were all of ginger curls,
with no room for any others. 
Jules tried to cough himself to sleep,
wondering why she’d run away… 
"It must be me," he thought sadly, 
"I’m as useless as they all say." 

Meanwhile, in a caravan,
on the other side of town,
Romy blushed as red as her hair
and just couldn’t suppress her frown. 
"He’ll never love me!" she wailed,
her broken, beaten heart in bits… 
"Nowt's less becoming on gingers
than an eyeful of bird sh..." – well, let’s say poo, shall we? My mother's in the audience...

A week went by, and our star crossed pair
became more shy and more tongue-tied. 
Until – a trip to the zoo was announced –
was luck finally on their side? 
What do you think? Is this the chance
for our heroes to share a wink? 
Will Julian get the kiss he wants? 
Say, audience, what do you think? 

Squashed on the coach bound for the zoo, 
Julian thought, "she will be mine!"
Inspiration struck him round the face,
"I’ll win Romy’s heart with a rhyme!" 
For, if asthma and brains weren’t enough
to make Julian bullies’ pet – 
he was also a poet – come on, Jules! 
We all know that poets are wet! 

So, Julian started writing
and began to spill out his heart. 
The blondest girl screwed up her face
as if she was smelling a fart. 
"Look," she hissed, "thinks he’s a poet,"
and the bully girls were deployed. 
They tore Jules' poem into shreds
and so his plan, it was destroyed. 

At the zoo, our unlucky pair
went t'ward the rabbit enclosure,
Romy decided origami was
the best path for her heart’s disclosure. 
She fashioned a bunny from paper 
and whispered, "this is for you,"
but a passing monkey snatched it, 
and slung it around with some poo! 

“Enough! Stop!” the fates did decree
deciding they must intervene. 
This wee pair have suffered enough, 
can fortune stop being so mean? 
Well, audience, it’s up to you – 
our lovers fate lies in your hands. 
Do you want a tragic ending for them? 
Or less tragic? Where do you stand? 

ENDING A - less tragic: 

At last, the fates were smiling,
and so our pair had their first kiss – 
but not their last, for they went on, 
to spend their lives in wedded bliss. 
Well, bliss may be too strong a word, 
for bad luck always clouded their skies. 
But with ginger hair and poems to deal with…
well really… are you surprised? 

ENDING B - tragic: 

Finally, the time had come
the kiss was on the horizon!
Romy leaned into Julian,
but the blondest girl had spied em. 
She threw a rock – Jules staggered back – 
clutched Romy’s hand, they did descend 
straight into the lion pit where 
those true loves met their toothy end. 

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

On Writing a (Performance) Poem - Part II

In Part One of this blog, I gave you the thrilling back story of the writing of my narrative poem, The Tragic Story of the Ill-Fated Lovers, Romy and Julian, Aged Seven. This part deals with the technicalities of writing the poem, is ridiculously long, and will probably be of interest to 0.7 of you. ;-) But if you indulge me and read it anyway, your reward will meet you in heaven. Probably. 


I had started out on my poem by writing little sketches of my two leading characters, and a planned verse-by-verse account of the plot, such as it was. I had a million ideas for things that didn’t make it into the final cut – Julian was going to wear red wellington boots at all times, I was going to juxtapose the slight Victorian feel of the poem with much talk of Twitter and iPhones and so on – but my plot was there. I was slightly daunted by the idea of the 25 verses I had to complete, but I wanted to tell a story and it seemed that it needed to be that long.

Poetry is a tricky concept, isn’t it? I write poetry occasionally, I read it somewhat less frequently, and there are aspects of it I love. However, it can be awful as well – nothing makes my heart sink lower than terrible poetry. Bad poetry? Oh noetry! I think poetry gets (and deserves!) a bad name when it’s wet. When it dribbles and trickles all over the place like a leaky tap, getting your trouser cuffs damp and making your cereal soggy. When it meanders hither and tither with no clear agenda. When the point is lost beneath a thousand flowery words and weak, misty metaphors.

In my opinion, the way to write good poetry (unless you’re very, very, very good and can break all the rules and still win) is somewhat counter-intuitive to the notion of poetry we all have in our heads as a lace-trimmed polygamist who won't be hemmed in by your bourgeois laws.

It’s all about the structure - it's about making a set of rules and not deviating from them. In my opinion, when you have a tight little cage to work in, you are forced to become more creative in order to fill it. If you, as the unwashed hippies would say, let it all hang out, then there’s no discipline and you’re never forced to re-write a line ten times until it shines like a diamond. I forget who this was, but I am paraphrasing some famous poet or other when he said that he spent the morning hard at work putting a comma in and the afternoon hard at work taking it out again. I work a lot quicker than this as slowness bugs me, but that’s the kind of painstaking attitude you have to adopt to write good poems. Not only does every word count, but so does every syllable and every punctuation mark.

This means that the first thing I always do when I write a poem (or always should do - sometimes I'm lazy and don't, always to the poem's detriment) is decide on the structure. This usually just means, for me, a rhyme scheme and a basic rhythm. I sometimes write poems that don’t rhyme – in fact, two of my favourite poems I’ve written in recent times, ‘I want to be as small as possible’ and ‘The ever decreasing circle,’ both of which feature in previous blog entries – don’t. But usually, I prefer it. What can I say? I am a product of pop lyrics and I like a nice rhyme. My favoured rhyme scheme, which you can see in ‘an old poem,’ one of the oldest blogs on this site is:


And my first instinct was to make this new poem follow that one. However, I turned to The Walrus and the Carpenter for inspiration, and realized that the Rev hadn’t rhymed as many lines as I might want to:

The sun was shining on the sea
Shining with all his might.
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright.
And that was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

As you can see, there is only one rhyme, but it occurs three times: might, bright, night. The other line ends – sea, make, was – don’t rhyme at all (this is an ABCBDB rhyme scheme, for those who care). Well, I thought, in my naivety. That’s a bit easy, isn’t it? But ok, if it’s good enough for Lewis Carroll, I guess it’s good enough for me!

Having decided I would be more painstaking than I usually am, I also counted the syllables in TWATC (hee hee, that’s quite a comical acronym, isn’t it?) (which are 8, 6, 8, 6, 8, 6 throughout the fucking thing without exception… it beggars belief, I tell you!) and decided that Romy and Julian would follow the exact same pattern – lines of 8 and 6 syllables, with every second line rhyming. This way, I thought, the poem would be my cunning little tribute to TWATC, and I could award extra smug points to anyone who noticed the similarity.

This plan, grand as it was, lasted all of about three minutes.

I sat myself down with my plot outline and my structure outline and tried to write, and instantly, it was clear that it wasn't gonna work. Without wanting to sound like a nutter, you have to write to the rhythms that are in your own head. Some rhythms will come naturally to you and some won’t, and trying to write to a rhythm you can’t really hear will always be an uphill battle. Do yourself a favour and go with what works for you. Once you've picked the rhythm, you have to stick to it, but you can create that rhythm whichever bloody way you like. 

My initial structure went like this:

Romy the Romany was a tubby ginger girl,
Who’d grown up in a Cambourne caravan
Hidden away from the world.
She made origami animals just like the real thing
And her only friends were the squirrels
Who she took under her wing.

It’s weak, but girl and world are supposed to rhyme, and then obviously so do thing and wing. This is out a little (I was going to come back and tighten it up), but the syllable structure was meant to be roughly 13 in line one, 8 in line two and 7 in line three, repeated for lines four, five and six. It’s a bit all over the shop, but it was what was working in my head, and I used that for a good 9 or 10 verses as I began to fill in my plotline, figuring I would come back and tighten it up later.

However – duh, duh, DUH! – I was finding that increasingly, what I needed to happen in each line was taking up too many syllables, and the rhythm was starting to sound different in my head. It turns out that, to tell a story, you need more syllables than I had given myself, especially when you’ve been foolish enough to give your leading man three syllables in his very name!

When I realised that the rhythm and the advancement of the plot couldn't work together, I faced a choice – to either make the plot less ambitious (a near impossibility, to be honest - it's not Inception, for heaven's sake), or to change the structure and re-write everything I’d written so far. For a while I sat staring into space, gripped with fear as both choices seemed wrong and it all seemed like way too momentous a decision to make.

This was when I remembered another of the golden rules of writing – until it’s been published (and aren’t I lucky, none of my writing has ever been burdened with that dead weight), nothing is carved in stone. You try something – it doesn’t work – so what? Scribble it out and try again! It’s always better to write something than nothing, and it’s much easier to turn a terrible something into a good something than it is to turn nothing into anything. So I tried a verse with the new structure that the poem seemed to be naturally leaning towards anyway:

The blondest girl smiled toxicly
And offered Romy a cake
Poor Romy took it trustingly,
No idea the girl’s grin was fake.
‘Is it wheat free?’ she asked, the girl said yes,
But Romy had been tricked
Her tummy started to swell and so
She didn’t see her lunch tin get nicked.

This was far from perfect – the syllables were out, still, with some lines being 8, some 9 and some 10, but at once I felt happier with this more even layout, and with eight lines per verse rather than six. So I went back and re-wrote all the verses I had so far to fit this new structure, aiming for around 8 syllables in every line... and this re-write was actually be much easier than I had feared. Letting the air out of a poem a bit – rather than having to lace it up tighter – is always going to be the easier of the two processes.

At this point (all of the actual writing had happened in one day), I started to get really down about the whole thing. I think it hadn’t helped that I had spent all day on my own, while I knew a lot of my friends were planning things, and fun things at that, the bastards. The actual process of writing is so strange. I love it – I must love it – why else do I persist, when my life is really quite busy enough already? Certainly, I love the results, but the actual process is a tricky thing.

Writing can be really hard and really tiring, and I was trying to write narrative verse, which I'd never done before… it wasn’t coming easy to me. I was tired, and lonely, and suddenly everything I’d written all day looked terrible – contrived, awkward and light years away from being funny.

Being somewhat of a slave driver, I pushed on for another four verses with the new structure, despite my misery, just telling myself that if I could get the bare bones down, I would come back to it tomorrow for another bash... I'd originally thought I could get the first draft of the whole thing done in one day (crazy arrogance, I can see now!) and was starting to panic that I was going to run out of time.

Interestingly, the four verses I wrote in that tired, protesting state, as quickly as I could so I could go downstairs and lose myself in my new Big Bang Theory boxset, were four that barely needed any editing at all:

Romy looked up from the squirrels
And her eyes met Julian’s eyes
She felt her little gypsy heart
Swell to twice its normal size.
He held out her Miffy lunchbox
And she reached her hands towards his.
Both were too shy to speak, but knew
All they wanted was a kiss.   

Before I went to bed, miserable and alone, the TV (shockingly!) not having cheered me up much, I tried to read it again, and had to stop midway through in disgust, so convinced was I that it was irredeemably terrible and that I would have to revert to my First World Problems poem, the idea of which I hated by now. I was seriously considering ringing my friend and telling her I didn’t actually have enough talent to pull this off and she’d better withdraw me. It was really only my hatred of letting people down that stopped me doing just that. I went to bed feeling utterly wretched.

The next morning, I had to go to work, and I took my notebook with me... and, as is often the way after a good night's sleep, it all started to look a little less appalling. 

My major concern had been whether it was funny enough or not. When I thought about this, I realised that what was actually driving me wasn’t so much the desire to make people laugh, although that came into it, so much as the desire to have people be engaged. I wanted to know that the audience were concentrating.

Laughter is a good sign of this, but almost any kind of reaction would be good. Plus, I know enough to realise that the more engaged and involved an audience feel with what they are hearing, the more they will be fooled into thinking that said piece is amazing. As well as making people laugh, I wanted to tug on their heart strings, make them gasp, make them root for the heroes. This was what I had in mind I wrote the ridiculously manipulative lines: ‘It must be me,’ he thought to himself/‘I’m as useless as they all say.’ And it was on writing with this in mund that I struck on the idea of adding a genuine audience participation element.

We all loved Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid, right? I know I did... As a 14 year old, I had one that mixed riding horses in a three-day event with kissing boys, and I worked out a logorithm (not that I knew it was called that back then) for making sure I had investigated every possible story, and then read those stories again and again. As a result, those books are never far from my head, and so when it occurred to me that I could get the audience to shout out their views and then vote for an ending, I started to get properly excited again. Some feedback from the friend running the cabaret later on inspired me to add 'boo' and 'yay' cards that I would hold up, so that the audience had no choice but to get involved and feel a part of it, and that was quite the success, if I do say so myself. 

However, it did still need more laughs, and I'm afraid that here, I sunk to the lowest common denominator. Whilst I'm not totally devoid of humour, being belly-laugh-funny is not where my talents lie as a writer. I can be wry and self-deprecating, I somewhat ironically boast, and I can make people chuckle knowingly, but I'm not a natural at creating howling, fist banging laughter of the sort I wanted.

So I decided that if I wanted to make people laugh properly, it was time to climb down off the high horse of intellect and snobbishness, and put in some jokes about poo and farts. This is Not Like Me. But I managed to shoe-horn three of the fuckers in, and people laughed. I wouldn't particularly recommend this as a writing strategy, but hell, we can't do everything perfectly, right?

I finally staggered to the end of a first draft some three or four days later than I thought I would, and was then faced with a series of re-writes. After a couple of run-throughs, tweaking at the words, the sense and the style, the first major thing I did was try to make every single line in the poem 8 syllables long. I am so in awe of the iambic pentameters and tetrameters of The Walrus and the Carpenter, and I was determined to try to reach an approximation of such discipline. And I did give it a pretty good stab.

It's fascinating, actually, how many words reveal themselves to be redundant when you really sit down and take a look at them. However, there was still a constant tension between storyline and syllables, a constant questioning over which was more important - a plot point, or the rhythm? Could the plot be changed every so slightly, to fit into the beat? If not, which words could be pared down or replaced in order to stick with the original plan?

I found myself engaged in a battle after a while whereby sometimes, lines with 9 syllables or with 10 just sounded better than ones with 8. When I read it aloud, somehow, at times, the shorter or longer lines just worked better. So after a while I relaxed a bit and let a few longer or shorter lines slip in. After all, I'm not Lewis Carroll and never will be, even if I try with both hands, so I decided to bow to what appeared to work and stick with that.

All that then remained was to run it through in front of a couple of friends, and then make some final alterations based on their feedback... and finally, it was done.

I shall leave you on the edge of your collective seats. You can read the poem in part three...

To be continued. 

On Writing a (Performance) Poem - Part I

This is a different sort of post to my usual ramblings, blog readers, as I'm going to talk about the process I recently went through of writing a narrative poem, which I've never done before, for a cabaret. It turns out I have a lot to say about this, so I'm breaking it into three parts in the hopes that that way, it might still get read. Enjoy!


 When a very talented and particularly awesome friend of mine announced that she was putting on a cabaret I, with my usual blind enthusiasm, leapt in with both feet, asking if I could be a part of it and perform a poem. Of course, I hadn’t written said poem yet, but why would that stop me? The cabaret was at LEAST three weeks away and thus, as Russell Brand so cunningly observes in Booky Wook 2, did not exist. I believe in Russell’s example, he agrees to neuter a pig with his teeth next February, since the existence of February has never been categorically proved. At the time of agreeing – nay, volunteering – to take part in the cabaret, I believed that the existence of Friday the 13th  (the date of said event) had never been proven, and I was free to perform a poem the equal of Eliot and Larkin in this mythical cabaret of my mind. The fact that I would actually have to write a poem, and it would actually have to be good, was beyond the bounds of my understanding at that point in time.

 I think this may have been partly to do with the fact that I volunteered before Christmas, and the cabaret itself was in January. The metaphorical divide between the end of one year and the beginning of the next is scores wide and storeys high. Of course, it’s literally only a matter of minutes, but I am a poet! I don’t deal in logic and literalness! Don’t offend me with your facts!

 Of course, my airy fairy ways of whimsy all came crashing down around my ears around January 4th when I looked in my diary and realised the cabaret was next week. And I had only the very vaguest idea in my mind of what I wanted to say and not one word actually committed to paper. I’m just glad I woke up and smelt the summer fruits squash at that point and not on the night of Thursday the 12th.

This idea that I’d had to perform a poem at my friend’s cabaret wasn’t as entirely based on nothing as some of my madcap schemes are (viz – my idea that all my DJ life partner and I needed to make Twisted Kitten complete was to learn body popping), as I have performed my poetry on three (three!) occasions in the past year or so. Twice at cabarets entirely organised and populated by close friends of mine who know me very well and were drunk enough to clap even if they didn’t know me, and once (somewhat more frighteningly) at a conference I went to that had an open mic night… although as it turned out, that was also an incredibly friendly and somewhat drunk crowd, so it couldn’t possibly have gone wrong.

 However, at the conference, two of the poems I read were the ones I consider to be my serious poetry, of which I am reasonably proud and have a decent amount of confidence about. Misery, I can write. Cabarets, however, are not a place for misery. The song does not go, ‘What good is sitting alone in your room, come hear poems about self harm and failure and cry into your gin,’ does it? No – clearly, what was needed in this instance was to make people laugh.

 At this point in my (ahem) esteemed writerly career, I had written a total of three so-called ‘funny’ poems, all of which have made it into this blog, I do believe. One was a Christmas poem written especially for my friends, in each verse was built around Christmas’ appeal to each of the five senses and concluded with a rhyming couplet matching the names of two friends with another word, eg ‘bright green, rich red of something holly/happy Christmas, Kaye and Olly’ and so on. The second was written about all the things I’m scared of or have had to give up, and the third was another Christmas effort in the form of a letter to Santa about my struggle to be good and unselfish by asking for world peace, but in fact being crushed by my over-whelming need for possessions.

 All very jolly in their ways, but here’s the thing – none of them are actually very good. They rely too much on the audience knowing me and getting in jokes, which aren’t even very funny anyway, and they’re just a bit obvious. They’re doggerel, basically. Reasonably accomplished doggerel, but nothing more. The current situation – reading to a paying audience who don’t know me, amongst a cast of proper entertainers – required something bigger and better. Something that was actually any good.

 My first idea was, as it turns out, a total non-starter. Being on Friday the 13th, the theme of the cabaret was bad luck. I had the idea that I could write a poem called First World Problems, which is the new phrase de jour amongst my friends and a concept which tickles me greatly. The idea of the poem would have been that the poet (a slightly OTT version of me, natch) thinks she is greatly unlucky and her life is cursed, when in fact she has an embarrassment of riches and is getting upset over broken nails when her driveway is full of brand new Jaguars.

 It’s something that maybe could work and could be funny, but I couldn’t really work up much enthusiasm for it, and after a bit of thought, I realised that my reasons for this were two-fold: one, like the others poems I’d written specifically for other cabarets, it relied on the audience knowing me quite a bit to make it funny, and two, what a loathsome protagonist! People aren’t going to laugh and sympathise if they hate you, not unless you’re a tremendously clever and funny writer, which I am not.

No, I realised, if I wanted this audience who I didn't know on my side (and I really, really did – I’m totally into self-flagellation, but even the mere thought of being flagellated by others (via the medium of, say, rotten tomatos) makes me mute with indignation and rage, one of my less pleasant traits) then I had to write about characters whom the audience would be 100% behind. They had to be the total opposite of the self-pitying, non-self-aware and spoilt character of my First World Problems poem; they had to be likability personified. And for a British audience, that means polite, well-meaning underdogs.

That was when Romy and Julian were born in my mind. They came to me in a bit of a flash, although I can’t deny that if I wasn’t such a big fan of the Lemony Snicket books, they probably would never have happened – the Baudelaire children would definitely find Romy and Julian to be kindred spirits, I think. That aside, though, when my brain asked itself who are the most likable people on earth, it replied that a tubby ginger gypsy who has no friends and talks to squirrels, and an asthmatic, overly clever boy who gets bullied and sports an overly large afro were the clear choice. For a while, Romy was going to be called Romany, after her people, but that name just never flowed right in my head. Of course, for anybody who didn’t spot it, the two are named after Romeo and Juliet, but with the sexes swapped around, a dazzling clever plot device of which the Bard himself would no doubt be proud, the little gender bender that he was.

 There was something about the idea of a doomed love affair between two seven year olds that I found innately pure and heart-warming and lovable, and I hoped that, when twinned with the misfortunes that would plague the poem, in order to stop things being cloying and sickly sweet, other people would think that way too.

 So, not content with setting myself the goal of trying to emulate the genius that is Lemony Snicket (if you haven’t read the Series of Unfortunate Events, do so at once!), I decided I would try to base my poem on the structure and feel of Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece The Walrus and the Carpenter, one of my favourite poems. I taught myself that poem word for word when I was a teenager – I used to recite it to myself during my paper round to pass the times when my walkman batteries had died. I love how easy it sounds, the way it trips off the tongue, how it combines the absurd and a clear storyline in such a smooth brush stroke. Narrative set to rhyme has always impressed me, whether it be poetry, a musical score or hip hop – moving a story on inside a syllable count and a rhyme scheme is not an easy skill. I knew the Rev Dodgson had made The Walrus and the Carpenter look easier than it was, but I had no idea just how much easier he’d made it look. 

So that was my challenge… to write a Lemony Snicket-esque Walrus and the Carpenter. In an afternoon. A doddle, I thought, licking my pen nib and settling myself on my chaise longue. Why would it take any longer?

To be continued...