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. 

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