Well, they are, aren’t they? Cucumber sandwiches tell you to be quiet and behave, that you’re in polite company and it’s business, they’re asking if you’ve polished your shoes and they’re warning you not to drink too much. Bacon sandwiches are much better, they’re all about slamming a mug of tea on the table, they’re saying ravenous and parched and that you’ve worked for these.
Here’s the thing. There is a way to see this thought, the whole bacon-sandwiches-are-loud bit, as poetic. I understand, it’s a reach. You’re a generous soul but even you would need to really like me, probably for us to be related closely and very definitely for me to have recently loaned you an awful lot of money, but it could happen, you could say this, it is possible.
Obviously I’m only saying this to you while we’re chatting, I wouldn’t go saying it in public. And I recognise completely that it isn’t full-on poetic poetry as I am unfortunately not at home to Mr Rhyme and it remains true that Ms Meter won’t take my calls.
It’s also not poetry up there with, oh, say, Emily Dickinson. I’d quote ‘hope is the thing with feathers’ to you now but I would weep.
Something in my eye.
I am obsessed with words and I’ve long been conscious that this ought to mean obsessed with poetry: there is no stronger use of text, I think. Instead, I’m rather scared of it and I come a long way around via incessant noodling and now a bath in a poetry workshop.
I’ve talked to you about the noodling before. I get all hung up on writers who use the wrong words and yet in doing so create something better, richer than the strictly accurate or grammatically correct lines would. Dar Williams’ “I am the others”, for instance, or the peculiar tale of how Suzanne Vega and I collaborated on a song lyric without her knowing it. (Mondegreen with envy.)
She still doesn’t have a clue about this and let’s keep it that way. If she came up to us now and overheard, if I went into shuffling my feet and trying to smile weakly, I’d be stumbling off into how she’s written this incredible ouevre that I love and admire and cherish but that I’ve also spent twenty years or more thinking about one word that isn’t in it.
That’s being seriously obsessed with words. Quick aside? BBC 7, as BBC Radio 4 Extra once was, long ago did a series of straight poetry readings: just one poem after another, no big embellishments, no introductions, just poem after poem. It was quite mesmerising and I realised during one episode that some of the poems I was hearing were actually Suzanne Vega lyrics. Just recited instead of sung. And they worked. They worked marvellously. Switch off the music in your head, give yourself up to the text, and you heard a new rhythm, a new power in the undertow.
I write prose and fiction and drama for a living but I obsess about poetry like a sports fan. It’s been this thing that I cheer and that maybe I know I could do better than that, come on ref, you’re blind, Ee Aye Addio, skin him, skin him. But I’ve never played.
Not quite true. I wrote a song lyric in a script once and it killed the script, but it was a lyric.
A friend, Laura Cousins – you’d like her, I must introduce you – once challenged me to write a song after seeing something in my twitter style that doesn’t exist. I failed. Officially we’re still talking, but we started it eight thousand years ago now so our first album may be a ways off just yet.
But a few months ago I was interviewed on BBC Radio WM by Charlie Jordan. And around the same time I met Laura Yates. And kind of around the same time ish, I met Gary Longden. These are three people deeply involved in poetry in the West Midlands: all these years I’ve been living on the M1 to London, this is the kind of people I’ve been missing out on both in Birmingham and in London.
Laura Yates sent me a Facebook invitation to a poetry event. I scan-read it on the run and saw that she was organising it, that Gary and Charlie were (I thought) performing at it, and of course I fancied that. I’ve seen Gary perform, I’ve not heard Charlie’s poetry but I’ve heard her perform on radio, I’m there. Except it’s not them performing, it’s them running a poetry workshop.
I must’ve known this before I signed up but there was this long period where consciously I knew what I was getting into but unconsciously I was still thinking it was these fine folk performing a show. So I didn’t get the tight-throat worry until a few days before. I checked but nobody close enough to me had died, my hair was untidy and needed a cut but it was unquestionably already washed, I had to go.
I did not ask them to be gentle with me.
I did not.
Anyway, by odd, random coincidence, they were gentle with me.
Was it fifteen people? I’m not sure now, I just saw them at first as this wall of people who were at the very least experienced poets if they weren’t also professional, if they weren’t already making their living from poetry. I put away a verse I’d been working on about a young man from Nantucket and listened.
Alan Plater said once that poets write about themselves, dramatists write about everybody else. I was conscious during the workshop that I probably belong heart and soul to drama, then, as I find it incredibly hard and worthless to focus on myself and what I’m seeing, what I’m feeling, in order to write something that can convey anything to anyone else. I don’t really care about me, it’s like I know all about me, I was there at the time, I saw me do it, whereas, come on, you’re new, I don’t know what you’ve been doing, you’re much more interesting.
Now, I do write a blog, I’m obviously not shy about expressing myself, but I’ll say it again: I write to you, I don’t go around trying to write to the world. And these poets were instead finding immensely personal thoughts that came from far within themselves yet somehow also chimed universally.
I say somehow but the how that some of them did was work and thought and talent and skill. It was so impressive that you would long for them to all be bastards.
They let me down there.
Over lunch, bacon from a nearby café called to a few of us. At first, I’d say that these poets were quiet and reserved, I’d say that the bacon sandwiches were noticeably louder, but poetry and food and amazingly cold weather brought us together into a right huddle of nattering and sharing. I liked being with them, I liked visiting this world where people are as obsessed with words as I am but are actually doing something with their obsession. It’s a place where I feel like a tourist but the natives were so friendly I noodled about buying a timeshare there one day.
Back at the workshop, Charlie was particularly encouraging about my now deeply personal Nantucket poem. Laura Yates has since half-encouraged, half-goaded and all-challenged me to write more. (You’re wanted too, you’re not getting out of this: have a look at Write Down, Speak Up on Facebook.)
And because of them, because of the workshop, I’ve spent the last week thinking and thinking and obsessing. I have a poem. I have an actual poem.
Well, I say an actual poem. For once I will claim without any fear of disagreement that it has the finest rhyme I have ever done. Because so far it’s one line. There is nothing to rhyme with it yet.
It’s also currently three words long.
I do believe that it can take a week to write three words. I do believe that words can take that work, that they can be worth that work, that three words can be stronger than a thousand.
But unfortunately what I’m supposed to be doing this week is writing a book and my target was 10,000 words.
So, excuse me, it’s 5am on Friday morning and I have to go write 9,997 words really, really, really quickly.
Well. I might get breakfast first. You know what I want to eat now, don’t you?