William Gallagher performing poetry at Waterstones Bookstore.

Rhyme of my life

I’m truly not sure that I can convey to you what this week has meant to me, not least because a huge part of it is dizzying surprise. But here goes: last night I performed my poetry on stage for the first time.

It sounds straightforward when I say it like that and actually I’m conscious now that a real poet would’ve imbued the line with layers of meaning. You’d read their version of that line and not just comprehend that this was a life milestone for me, you’d also feel the tug in your heart that it was a milestone for you.

Poets do that and I can’t. All I can do is talk. Privately – no, now I think of it also quite publicly – I’ve been terrified of poetry. The power of it. There are poets who can make me weep on cue and that’s just evil.

I’ve been glad that at least I get this now, that while I came to it very late, I do at least read some poetry and I get this. I get to be made to weep, I get to have my heart tugged and my head wrenched.

But that’s different from writing the stuff.

Only, would I ask you to do something I can’t do myself? Of course I would. Consequently when I’ve run writing workshops that have been required to cover poetry, I’ve happily told you it’s beyond me and I’ve very happily learned from you.

Except a few weeks ago when poet Nyanda Foday conned me into writing a piece when myself and Maeve Clarke were running a summer school for Writing West Midlands.

Maeve Clarke is now the key part of that sentence.

For last night she produced the Birmingham heat of a poetry contest called Superstars of Slam and it was held at Waterstones. I went to support her and to just have a good time listening to the poets.

It turns out, though, that poetry contests will apparently often want what they call a sacrificial poet. This is a new term to me but then the term ‘poem’ isn’t exactly familiar yet, and Maeve had to explain. Judges will listen first to a poem that is not in the competition and to a poet who is not competing. It’s like warming them up. It’s like being the dull first questions in a lie-detector test, you know, where they are setting a baseline.

The judges assess this sacrificial poet and that’s the baseline for the night. Apparently it’s better than them judging the first real poet cold.

The only requirement to be a sacrificial poet, then, is to be a poet with a poem. One poem. Maeve knew I had one poem. She knew I’d written one at that summer school.

And she also knew that because I wrote it on my iPad, it would automatically be on the iPhone I was texting on when she called me over before the start.

I feel like I’m writing a Dear Diary entry here and I’m grateful that you’re putting up with me wibbling on, thank you. But I’d like to ask you to do one more thing: make sure I keep some perspective here.

I was not in competition last night. Having one poem does not make me a poet. And most of all, poetry evenings are supportive and welcoming and kind.

But this was a big thing for me, made possible both by Maeve and specifically by how she sprung it on me. I wish I’d shaved, but otherwise it was perfect: I had no time to get nervous.

Well, there was one moment. The three judges – Maeve Clarke, Giovanni Spoz Esposito and Afshan D’souza-Lodhi – had large laminated sheets with their scores on out of 10. Like Strictly Come Dancing paddles, but with less glitter. And as I looked over at them for approval, I saw all three sheets had the number 1.

That’s a bit harsh, I thought: scoring 1, 1 and 1. Fair, but harsh.

Then they turned them over. For content, I got a 6, a 7 and an 8. For performance I think I got a 7, an 8 and another 7. I was a bit too dazed to take it in but I believe so.

I think it goes without saying that these were the worst scores of the evening but you didn’t have to bring that up.

Mind you, I don’t have to bring up this last point but I see no possible way for you to stop me. That dastardly Maeve who needed a poet and like the producer she is knew where to get one, also filmed my performance. It’s an entire 35 seconds long, which means I’ve now gabbled at you about something forty times longer than the something actually took.

I have no problem with that. You’d best avoid me for a while or I’ll tell you about it all over again.

Anyway. Here’s Palimpsest – about the type of ancient document where words are written over over over each other in layers because the paper was so scarce – as performed by me. Poet William Gallagher.

Place and time

Maybe you can create a space, a place, a venue. I know you can build a building and I know you can run events but I’ve said before that you can’t just decide that this place will be special, that you can’t predict what venues will start to have a life of their own. But I could be wrong there because there’s a spot that has done this and not by accident. Last night I was at Waterstone’s bookshop in Birmingham and realised that it has genuinely become an arts venue.

This is mostly great but that thought last evening came in tandem with one that isn’t so good. This bookshop now has the same life and impact, it has become the same kind of hub for my working and social life, that the Library of Birmingham used to be. It knifes me saying that: I was so in love with that Library and it was so instantaneously important to the city, but then they halved its opening hours, cut its staff, immolated the place.

I had thought it remarkable that within weeks of it opening, so very many things I do revolved around the Library of Birmingham. I’ve spoken there, researched there, eaten there, had very many coffee meetings, it went from nothing to surely having always been there.

And now I pass it often and I regularly see tourists pulling on the door, perplexed why they can’t get in.

Anyway.

Across the city, there is this branch of Waterstone’s and over the years I’m sure I’ve bought many books there but to me it’s always just been where the old Times Furnishing building used to be. I can’t conceive how long ago that store closed and I refuse to look into it for fear of how old I’ll feel, but I walk into Waterstone’s and somehow I can still see the old store. The bookshop is all light and welcoming and I remember the furniture shop being dark, but the walls are where they were, the distinctive steps up to each floor are where they were.

This Waterstone’s was refurbished and reopened last November and earlier this year I went to pitch a vague event idea to the manager, Stuart Bartholomew. By the time it became less vague, by the time it became a poetry and prose event I performed at and co-produced with Charlie Jordan, it became a fair miracle that we could even be fitted in. This store runs events constantly. Take a look at the current schedule on its official website.

I can speak as someone who’s run one of these events: it buzzed, it was a success, there was great wine and chocolate. There was also Grace, who manages the events and didn’t criticise my shoving aside anyone who stood between me and that chocolate, yet whose surname I clearly didn’t bother to learn. Well.

But I can more speak as an attendee. I’ve been to talks there, I’ve been to see authors talking about their new books and last night I was at the launch of the Birmingham Literature Festival. The event is in October but the programme was revealed last night and you can now buy tickets. Perhaps ironically, I don’t think any of its events will be at Waterstone’s and I know very many will be at the Library of Birmingham. But Waterstone’s is running pop-up bookstalls at the Festival and last night it hosted the launch.

I am doing bits in the Festival but last night I was watching so many happy people near chocolate. I had to skip out early, I’m in London today running a workshop, and do you know it felt wrong leaving? Going from the verve and life of this event to a deeply long and boring train ride and a midnight slump into a Travelodge. Just wrong.

This bookshop is an important part of Birmingham’s literature, writing, arts and poetry scene. It’s become so in less than a year. I think it’s obvious that this is a direct result of the effort of Stuart, Grace and the rest of the staff but this is becoming an advert so I’ll just say that really it’s down to the chocolate.

 

I’ve not seen Star Wars

I’ve not seen the new film so I can’t spoil it for you. But although I hope to get out of work early today to see it, it’s not the film that’s on my mind. I’m not really thinking of any of the Star Wars films themselves, I am thinking of how they crop up every few decades and remind me of everything else that was going on.

It’s like life is this long rope back down the mountain and the Star Wars movies are pitons in the rock. They are fixed points and each one reminds me of that spot in time even though the films themselves aren’t a big part of those moments. I mean, I have a uselessly good memory for footage: for example there’s a certain type of US TV drama whose closing credits would be done over clips from the episode and I always unerringly notice when the clip is a different take. Totally useless, though sometimes handy when you’re editing video and can remember seeing just the right moment within the hours of footage. So I’m footage-aware, except with Star Wars.

When the prequels are on the telly I have caught myself wondering if I even saw these films because I don’t recognise anything. And as big as all the Star Wars movies were, maybe none were as anticipated as Return of the Jedi. We’d had Star Wars itself, we’d had The Empire Strikes Back which as well as ending on a cliffhanger was also just a good film, so Jedi was a big deal. In six movies, the single frame I remember from seeing in the cinema is an early shot in Jedi where we see the Death Star and I thought oh. We’re late getting into the cinema, such long queues genuinely around the block at the Gaumont in Birmingham, and they’ve started the film before we are at our seats. Doing that excuse me, pardon me, thanks dance through the line, I am seeing the Death Star on screen and all interest, all excitement somehow punctured.

That’s all I remember from the films as I saw them in the cinema: the deflation at Jedi, that single shot somehow telling me this was not going to be a great night. It wasn’t and there’s probably a life lesson in how I believed it was a disappointingly poor film but we didn’t yet have the prequels to know what poor means.

I do remember a vague shot from when I went to see Empire. It’s much less clear in my mind and partly because it isn’t from The Empire Strikes Back at all. I’d won a contest in the Evening Mail and got to see an early screening. I remember the thrill of being in a cinema during the day to see an exclusive screening and the footage I remember is from one of the Omen movies that was playing when we were led back out through the auditorium.

For Star Wars itself, I say the title and I see a very young me walking with my mom across an ice-cold Birmingham. I remember excitement, I remember my mother saying she didn’t understand the film, I think I remember her holding my hand. I do remember us having a meal out at a Berni Inn. I remember how special that was. If you remember that chain of steakhouses, you may think I’m being sarcastic but no, it was special at the time.

I was the exact perfect age for the original Star Wars when it first came out. Exactly perfect: with Star Wars I was a little boy rooting for Luke and Leia to get together but by the time Empire came out I was old enough to see that Luke was wet and Han Solo was the guy. Later every man you know is supposed to have gulped a bit at Princess Leia’s gold bikini in Return of the Jedi and I didn’t. I saw that and felt I was supposed to gulp. I resented it: you think you can push my hormones around? But I had fallen hard for Carrie Fisher in Empire and maybe it’s because she had more to do in that, she was a more interesting character clad in white snow gear instead of barely wearing gold. Maybe I was also getting all sophisticated: I think it was around Empire that I finally nodded and thought yes, it was right that Star Wars had lost out at the Oscars to Annie Hall.

I’m a boy for Star Wars, I’m hormonal for Empire, I’m disappointed for Jedi. Flash forward to 1999 when The Phantom Menace came out and what I remember so vividly is going to see another press screening. I’m now a BBC film reviewer, writing for Ceefax and possibly the nascent BBC News Online if that had started yet. Sitting in a very large press screening, aware that somewhere over there on that opposite side there’s Barry Norman. I’m seeing a film at the same time as quite legendary film reviewer.

I’m also seeing it at the same time as my editor from Ceefax. Never before or after did the editor go to a screening with the reviewer, never before or after would two people go to any screening, but this was big. The first Star Wars in nearly two decades. I remember going in to that Leicester Square screening with her, I remember us coming out. I liked that editor a lot and far, far more than I liked the film and I hope she felt the same. I know she felt the same about the film.

There was this giant, giant movie, this world event really, and I can see us walking out of the cinema into bright sunshine and all thoughts of the film evaporating. We were more interested in what we were doing for the rest of the day, getting back to the newsroom, the other deadlines going on, anything but the movie.

That was 16 years ago. Today my BBC work is behind me and I’m not reviewing Star Wars for anyone. But I’m going to a screening and I’m thinking of the work I’m doing now, I’m thinking actually rather excitedly positive thoughts about what I get to do these days. More excited about my work than about this movie. I’m also just thinking of that editor, of that Death Star, of Carrie Fisher’s heart-buckling Nordic look in Empire and her superb writing style since then, I’m thinking of The Omen and how the Gaumont cinema is long gone, I am thinking of an ice-cold night walking across Birmingham holding hands with my mother.

Who needs to actually see Star Wars?

Ginnunga-gap

Finally, I’ve got a name for it. Listen, last night I did my 120th speaking gig of the year and this one had something in common with maybe 10 of  the others. It’s not a good thing, not for me, but normally it only happens in what turn out to be the very best speaking gigs I do. That’s not the case now: last night’s wasn’t my very best. It was a Writers’ Guild event to do with supporting the Birmingham Writer in Residence job at the Birmingham Rep and the BBC. Guests were great, audience was perfect and I honestly don’t think anyone left that room feeling disappointed. Yet I wasn’t good enough. I’m thinking about this.

But quite shortly into it, I hit this thing I have today decided to call the Ginnunga-gap. I just make up syllables, really, and throw in a hyphen. if you don’t know the term – and I had to look it up despite knowing it for centuries – let me tell you in a moment. First, what I mean by it.

Whatever the subject you’re talking about, whatever the audience and whatever the format of the event, you have a certain time to fill and part of the job is filling that well. In these 10 or so cases, there has come a moment when I knew I couldn’t fill the time.

It’s usually about two thirds of the way through and we’ve all been working rather quickly, we’re through or nearly through all my material. The time from when it hits me to the end of the event can be as much as three hours. It is a calamitous, lurching fear that damages your stomach.

Officially, the Ginnunga-gap is a gaping abyss, a yawning void, it is the primordial void in Norse mythology. (Wikipedia spells it as one word, Ginnungagap.) That’s not where I know it from. It’s taken me a long time to remember where and actually to recall exactly the term. I knew it was Something Something Gap. It’s also taken me the last hour of searching through iBooks and Kindle when the book I know it from was right there on the shelf above my Mac. In direct line of sight, in fact.

The book is a collected quartet of novels by James Blish that together are known as Cities in Flight. It’s a remarkable series that uses this Ginnunga-gap term to describe the period between the end of this entire universe and the start of the next. I read it as a teenager, I think, and every many years I happen across it again and end up re-reading it. It’s the novel with my favourite technical term: the spindizzy. Love it. Just the word. I’m not fussed what it means.

I’m less keen on my Ginnunga-gap and while I do recommend the novels, I recommend your being better prepared than I sometimes am. I promise you that I’m prepared, sometimes far too much, and I admit that last night my thumb caused part of the problem. Instead of a nice OmniOutliner document with all my notes for the event, I looked down at my iPad and found I was reading the running order of a radio podcast I’d produced earlier in the week. “Well,” I said to the audience. “Any questions for the panel?”

My abilities and performance aside, last night I’d misjudged the amount of time we’d need for what we were doing and that was partly because I didn’t get exactly the audience I’d anticipated. Everyone who came was serious and there to find out things, but I’d mentally budgeted time for more people and the inevitable number of long-winded questions you get from a proportion of folk. Plus there are various issues around this topic that I’ve been asked about privately and would have to deal with but didn’t come up on the night. So I’m okay with that, that’s a natural development of an event in progress.

But this time I got the Ginnunga-gap about seven minutes into the 90.

Nine out of these last ten events with this stomach-tearing gap worked out brilliantly, in my opinion, and there is definitely something about working under pressure. Also about having a mental grab-bag of tools and topics plus a bucketful of anecdotes. None of that helped last night because my job was not really be there, to not be in the way, to not be the point of the event. Instead my job was to solder the panel and the audience together and make sure the former got to say what they needed and the latter got to hear what they must. I actually think I handled the questions well, choosing the next person, letting others know I’d seen them so they could put their hands down, then correctly going to those people, calling many out by name although most I hadn’t met before. All the usual stuff.

I’ve just realised that this particular usual stuff is when I’m working with the audience or I’m working with the panel. When I’m on my own – let me go from Norse mythology to Strictly Come Dancing – I’m out of hold. And there’s too much gapping.

Next gig: tomorrow.