Tuesday, 17 January 2012

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...

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