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Cancerous Husband: or NaPoWriMo 2018

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The image above is the result of further experiments with cut-up poetry - this time taking episode synopses of 80s TV classic Golden Girls and splicing them with extracts from the William Burroughs classic, The Naked Lunch. 

I'm joining in with National Poetry Writing Month this year. The idea is to write one poem for every day of the month of April. It's quite a challenge and inevitably you end up running quite dry toward the end of the month, but it can be a great exercise for generating work you can come back to and polish up later. It also inspires you to just jump in and write about things you might normally think aren't worth it - and that's when you surprise yourself.

My approach is to use NaPoWriMo as an opportunity to sketch out ideas for a number of projects currently in the works. It's nearly the end of week 1 and the first set of poems I worked on were the aforementioned Golden Girls cut-ups. The next set I'm planning will be some poems inspired by video games. 

For those who are interested in following my progress, I'm posting each poem on the Poetry Free For All forum - a great place to interact with other poets and writers, see what others are up to, and get feedback on your work. It's worth noting that there are some really creative, interesting things being posted in the forum this year, so it's definitely worth checking out. Good luck to all fellow NaPoWriMo-ers! 

Murder, She Wrote Poetry Cut-Ups

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Collaboration/ experimentation/ collage/ dada/ old lady sleuth ...

I love Murder, She Wrote – and not entirely in a hip, ironic way. Aside from the comedy of an old woman finding murder everywhere she goes, and the numerous disguises Jessica Fletcher tries to pull off, this is a TV show that exists in a timeless bubble. It would be on our old, boxy little TV set when I was home sick from school as a kid – and to date the repeats still play practically every night. It’s a comforting show, a soothing bit of fluff you can stick on after a stressful day at work; you don’t even have to pay attention to it. Just knowing that Jessica Fletcher is clomping about in her big heels somewhere in the background accusing everyone of murder and that she will, by episode’s end, always find the killer, is comfort enough.

To a more literary degree, there’s something deliciously Ballardian about it. Nearly every hotel suite, bedroom and restaurant is a place of plush pink carpet, sherbet-coloured walls and floral arrangements. Through these Venetian rooms women with southern belle accents protest innocence, scream at the discoveries of corpses and stalk about in pearls and violent lipstick. Jessica herself is nearly always engaged in some sort of fancy gala, or publishing-related meeting in a high rise block, or pretending to finish a salad in an expensive, tastefully-lit restaurant.

For years, I’ve wanted to write a poem about Murder, She Wrote. Recently I started to dabble with a few experiments into what I could do with it. Initially I thought about taking a synopsis of an episode and replacing the key words with their thesaurus definitions. This was the result:

 

Jessica attends a tennis tournament as the guest of honour. She struggles to protect her former student Carol when her boyfriend is blown up in her car and she is the only suspect.

Jessica is present at a game in which two or four players strike a ball with rackets over a net stretched across a court as the person who is invited to visit someone's home or attend a particular social occasion of high respect. She makes forceful or violent efforts to get free of restraint or constriction to keep safe from harm or injury her having previously been a particular thing person who is studying at a university or other place of higher education, Carol, when her regular male companion with whom they have a romantic or sexual relationship is destroyed or severely damaged by an explosion in her road vehicle, typically with four wheels, powered by an internal combustion engine and able to carry a small number of people, and she is the only person thought to be guilty of a crime or offence.

 

… which I don’t think is too bad (the regular male companion being destroyed or severely damaged in an explosion again felt quite JG Ballard). However, by this point I’d already decided I wanted to do something fairly big in scope, and this replacing of words with definitions didn’t feel like something that would have enough longevity.

So, I turned to the Dadaist tradition of cut-ups. Musicians such as David Bowie and Mark E Smith were famed for using this technique in which you take a piece of text, cut up each word and rearrange to form something new. I was wary of it at first as I thought it just a novelty. I took the synopsis for episode 1, season 1 of MSW from the IMDB and cut up each individual word. Then I took some Scott Walker lyrics (a reliable source of weird and wonderful words) and tried mixing the two together. The result was this:

 

Episode 1: The Birds Birds Home Holmes

Unwanted novel, former celebration. This she English dips, murder vaults. Murdered Jessica Fletcher stays strange. His moonlight teacher is a New York breast ceiling. Cornhusk of party wishes. The moon, blood-painted blue, travels heavy. The beliefs of the doll bring little success. She costumes about as special guest Sherlock with her debut novel, Zodiac. In her gold still lives the bird.

 

… a scintillating blend of the weird and unexpected, which caught my imagination instantly. There was genuine excitement for me in jumbling up words, blindly picking them at random and seeing how the sentences fell. That’s not to say all of this just magically happened in the perfect order. I performed quite a lot of editing to get the sentences to make at least a little bit of sense (otherwise you’d just end up with stuff like “the out for they do yes wandered”). Oftentimes I used the cut-up technique to generate the key words of a sentence and then fill in the blanks to string it together myself.

I decided I would use the cut-up method to produce an “alternate dimension synopsis” for each episode of the first season of the show, and post them on my Experiments page. This being the internet, it’s always good to have something visual to fire the imagination, and so I thought it would be even more exciting to have an image to accompany each episode.

That’s where my friend and collaborator, Alex Stevens, comes in. Alex is a fellow Cardiffian and mixed media artist who works under the name Abject Objects. He creates sculptures, paintings and drawings, usually on the themes of myth, monsters and nature. We decided to join forces on this MSW project, and so for each episode poem I produced, he made a collage. The initial idea was for Jessica Fletcher to feature in each piece, but sometimes the nature of the episode meant she just didn’t fit. Either way, each collage produced by Alex is a weird and disturbing and often beautiful meshing of themes taken from the poem. I think word and image fit beautifully in this series. Here are a few examples:

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All 22 episodes of Season 1 are now complete – a poetic synopsis for each episode, as viewed through some terrible warped black hole, and a collage in which Jessica is reflected and refracted through nightmarish prisms. All of these are currently available on the Experiments page of this website. It’s been a creatively fulfilling and really enjoyable experiment.

Big thanks to Alex for collaborating with me and tirelessly producing his artwork to a pretty quick turnaround – and thanks to everyone who has liked, commented and shared our work on social media.

This is, however, not the end…  

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Update - March 2018

I’m taking advantage of being virtually snowed-in to do a bit of a “what I’m up to” post. Blog posts seem increasingly difficult to produce in the 2010s, I think largely because we can update so much more efficiently with things like Twitter. But I’ve got a lot of projects in the works at the moment so it could be interesting to pull them all together here – and there are a few poetry things you might like to submit to as well.

  Image courtesy of The Emma Press

Image courtesy of The Emma Press

The first bit of news is that I’ve had a poem accepted for the Emma Press anthology of British Kings & Queens! This will be an anthology of children’s poetry looking to paint a timeline of British monarchy. My poem is about the first and only King ever to reign over Wales. It should be out later this year.

While we’re on the subject of the Emma Press, I recently had a rejection for a poem I sent to them for an anthology of children’s poetry about dinosaurs. BUT – they’ve kindly offered me the opportunity of writing something else, as a sort of commission for the book. So I’m going to have a sit down and a think about that and hopefully come up with something up to scratch.

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Now, one of the main things I’ve been working on recently is a series of poems inspired by classic TV crime show and Angela Lansbury vehicle Murder, She Wrote. The seed of this project came from me wanting to try my hand at the cut-up technique. Basically you take a chunk of text, cut each word out and then re-assemble to form something new. For the last few weeks I’ve been taking a synopsis for each episode of the show from the IMDB and splicing it together with song lyrics to create weird new versions of the classic episodes.

I’ve been working with Abject Objects – otherwise known as my friend Alex Stevens – a Cardiff-based artist. For each cut-up poem I make he takes an assortment of imagery, usually involving Jessica Fletcher, and creates a collage to accompany the episode. I post one in the Experiments section of my website per day. The idea is to complete the whole first season of the show. We’d like to maybe do a few more seasons after that, but we’re wary of stretching the joke too thinly, so to speak. Time will tell...

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Another thing I’ve been working on is a series of visual poems based around Sonic the Hedgehog and Scott Walker. I’ve talked about the inspiration for this idea elsewhere on the site, but this is basically a melding of two worlds – one brightly coloured and pixel-cute, the other gloomy and disturbed. So far I’ve tried a few collage pieces, and I’m currently working on a “painting poem”, which will see poetry applied to this moody canvas. The poem itself will be a kind of rant from Dr Robotnik/ Eggman, which turns the tables and paints Sonic as the true villain for continually causing extreme amounts of damage to the property of a doctor. I’m not sure how many paintings there will be yet, but I’m hoping that once the series is finished I can find a good home for it.

Looking ahead, and back to the Emma Press. They’ve just put out a call for submissions on the theme of the Future. This is an exciting theme for me and has a lot of scope. The editors are always open to imagination and creativity and that’s a huge draw for me as someone who just can’t muster the enthusiasm to write poetry about “real” things. You can read all about the submissions call here.

   Image courtesy of Sidekick Books

Image courtesy of Sidekick Books

Lastly, Sidekick Books also have a new submissions call for the next instalment in their Headbooks series. This one is for a book around the theme of robots, AI and digital consciousness. It will be a visual book – so plenty of exciting juxtapositions of imagery and language are on the cards. I had a few poems featured in the first anthology in this series, Aquanauts, and it was exciting to try my hand at something new as I’d never made a visual poem before. The info for the submissions call is here.

That’s bringing things up to date for now. If you’re interested, keep a lookout on the Experiments page for new work and new episodes of Murder, She Wrote in poetry cut-ups!

Sidekick Books Advent Calendar

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This Christmas Sidekick Books created an unfolding digital pamphlet in the form of an advent calendar. Each day a window was opened to reveal only part of a poem, as if it were being glimpsed through a peephole. One of my poems was chosen for day 10, and you can see it here.

Seeing as this was a bit of a visual experiment, I thought it might be nice to explain a bit about how I made it. The poem by its nature is quite ambiguous I suppose, because the window format means only a bit of the whole is seen and so it's largely open to interpretation. The gist in my mind was either a figure glimpsed through the misty glass of a shower door by unknown and admiring eyes (or the eyes of a Psycho-esque assailant) or perhaps the shower glass itself is getting in a lather over this laid bare body. 

I started with the text below - a square window cut from a larger piece, which had to be strategically placed in order to catch some sense of meaning, otherwise you'd just end up with a load of "and", "then," "if" and punctuation and so on. So this was the starting point:

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The first thing to do was to give the type the appearance of being behind misty glass. In Photoshop, I predictably used the blur tool just to soften up the text a bit. Then I created a layer using a soft grey tone, turned the opacity down to about 50% and laid this over the top. The next stage was where the real work came in - crafting each of the little droplets of moisture running down the glass. I'm no Photoshop expert, so to do this I followed this brilliant guide. I ended up with this:

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From here it was a case of cropping the image down to the bare bones of the type, so that it would fit the template window given by the editors (I'm not sure I got this bit exactly right as my window looks distinctly smaller than everyone else's on the calendar!). And there you have it - steamy shower poetry behind steamy glass. Merry Christmas! 

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The Tangerine

I'm very pleased to have a poem feature in thew new issue of The Tangerine magazine! The poem is called Dementia as Computer Game Glitch. It uses the framing device of glitching in video games - ie when a game freezes or temporarily breaks or otherwise performs some unscripted, unintended quirk - as a way of conveying the gradual erosion of memory and function associated with dementia. Dementia is something that has affected a family member of mine in the past, and a topic that I read about daily in my day job with the NHS. Issue three of the magazine is the autumn 2017 issue, and it's available direct from The Tangerine website. 

Welcome!

Thank you for visiting my website. Here is where you can find out more about my poetry and the various books, magazines and websites in which my writing has featured. The Experiments page will function as a kind of scrap book where I'll post ideas and bits of projects I'm working on. All communication is very welcome via the Contact link below.