Prologue (Grime Mix)

626 years ago to the day, Chaucer’s pilgrims began their pilgrimage from London to Canterbury. Here’s a video of me peforming the opening to my version of The Canterbury Tales at the English and Media emagazine conference last year. The audience was 700 enthusiastic A ‘Level students!

2012 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 2,600 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 4 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

Spring Update!

This is my shortest blog ever because I’ve spent the day working on the last of my versions of the Canterbury Tales. It’s an interpretation of The Man of Law’s Tale, heavily influenced by the BBC adaptation and it’s a 7-sonnet corona. And I’ve written most of it in one sitting so I’m ready to veg out on Spotify…

I’ve been showcasing new work at Lewes Literary Society and Greenwich Poetry Society. You can read about the latter at the wonderful poet, Fiona Moore’s Displacement Blog.

And I’ve sent the manuscript to my publishers, Canongate, so watch this space…

That Beatin’ Rhythm

So why the big gap between the last post and this? Well, I set myself the impossible task of at least starting a version of every tale by the end of January. I missed the deadline but now have only one tale I haven’t worked on. Wanted to share some of the new writing.

I’ve just put the finishing touches on this experimental piece made almost entirely from Northern Soul song titles. It’s a version of The Merchant’s Tale. As it’s quite long, here’s the first two paragraphs. Enjoy!

Once Upon a Time, in the Land Of 1000 Dances, January married May. What is This Thing Called Love? Some say, Love Is a Serious Business; some say, Love Is a Trap. He’s The Batchelor, She’s Not the Marrying Kind. He Mr Big Shot Got My Mind Made Up and she a Country Girl Talkin’ ’Bout Poor Folks, Thinkin’ ’Bout My Folks. He said I’ve Struck It Rich but some say she Cashing In. He Too Old for her and yet, they Just Like Romeo and Juliet. Adam and Eve. 

And I Damien, Agent 00 Soul from the Backstreet, the Image Of a Man. Saw a Job Opening for a Mr Clean to Lend a Hand to Little Old Man, January. He bought the House For Sale, The House Next Door, huge as a Haunted Castle. I fell The Big Oak Tree to make furniture an’ sing The Work Song as I clearing Bricks, Broken Bottles and Sticks outside. There’s a Storm Warning and I Run for Cover from the Spring Rain, The First Time I see May, the Lady In Green. She a Flower Child, a Wild One. I say Stop Girl, but she Keep On Walking, Surrounded By a Ray Of Sunshine. Am I Cold, Am I Hot. I Got the Fever. I Love Her So Much (It Hurts Me).

From every shires ende…

I’ve been hibernating from my blog but furiously working behind the scenes to get to the stage of a version of every tale, however raw. Deadline for that, early February. Then another home-based four-day retreat to finish stuff off. Then lots of fine tuning.

Just before Christmas worked on the Friar’s Tale: the combination of suddenly realising that most of my versions are in variations of southern England English and that I only had six more to do, forced me to take on other voices. I wrote The Friar’s Tale (The Devil in Llandudno Junction) in a North Wales English i.e. English influenced by Scouse and Welsh. I spent my entire secondary schooling in North Wales, it was easy. And great fun! All very well having Nigerian English and nonspecific Eastern European but what about the wealth of Englishes in the UK. Note UK and not just England. Found some great websites where you can listen to different accents (people from all over the UK reading Mr Tickle!) and get into grammatical variations, like the Southern English ‘we was’ or the Yorkshire ‘it were’.

Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale is the only one to use a different dialect, a Northern dialect, and that’s only in the direct speech of the students. Yesterday I had another attempt at the Reeve’s Tale. I can now announce that the speaker will definitely be a dog, a Yorkshire sniffer dog. Suddenly the tale came alive. Also, after doing versions in prose, blank verse, unrhymed and rhymed  iambic tetrameter, I think I’ve finally found the verse form: rime royale. Chaucer invented rime royale for Troilus and Criseyde. His is in iambic pentameter and I fully intend to give that a go for either the Man of Law’s or Franklin’s Tale; but mine is in tetrameter.

Some of the voices have come easy, the Knight’s, Reeve’s and Merchants have not. But I learnt my lesson the hard way with the former and I now know very quickly whether the voice is working. If the writing of it’s like walking through concrete, my instinct tells me I’m not excited and something is wrong. Writing doesn’t always flow, but without the passion, the obsession to get it as good as it can possibly be, it’ll be dead words on the page. I have to have a strong sense of the character AND know the form fits their voice. Narrative’s a challenge but Chaucer already did that work for me (as Petrarch and Boccaccio did for him). My next challenge is The Summoner’s Tale and he has to be a geezer from Sarfeast London who happens to be a bailiff. Take a butchers at this in a few weeks time…

Talking Heads

The George Inn, Southwark

The George Inn, Southwark

Had a wonderful Monday evening talking shop with Ros Barber, Jane Draycott and Jenny Lewis at The George, Southwark. The third meeting of the Medieval-Renaissance Women’s Drinking Society.  To be honest, not much drinking goes on since we all have to manage work and (extended) families but the talking is wonderful. We’re at various stages of reworking texts written by long-dead men. Jane’s translation of Pearl is out there and has been reprinted; Ros’s The Marlowe Papers is out next year; mine, Jenny’s and Jay’s (the wonderful Jay Bernard) are still in progress.

Jane talked eloquently about the difficulties of positioning yourself in relation to the original text: do you sit behind it, beside it? How much of your own voice and how much of theirs. She was talking about translation but it’s relevant to any form of rewriting. It made so much sense to me. And we both talked about taking on a strong male voice and the challenges it posed. I came away feeling invigorated and ready to take the scarey step of pasting all the polished pieces into a file called ‘Fragments’. Still too superstitious to give it a final name. Roving Mic is still the working title…

Talking of talking heads, I’ve started working on the Monk’s Tale which is not one story but 19 stories following a monotonous tragic trajectory. Not a great read and, like my version of The Parson’s Tale, decided to create an overriding narrative. It’s in its early stages and in prose and I seriously need to revisit some Alan Bennett. In the Summer I bought both the Talking Heads book and CD and spent a couple of weeks completely immersed in both. Stunning stuff, clever, witty, moving and more risque than I imagined. It reminded me that to simulate speech you can get away with leaving a lot of words unsaid. Reminded me that speech leaves a lot unsaid.


Keats' House

Keats' House

If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all’ –  John Keats. Discuss

Just over a week ago I had the pleasure to read at Keats House in Hampstead. It was the final event of Benjamin Zephaniah’s residency, and especially inspiring to hear young people perform their work so confidently. After the wow factor of the stunning gardens, I entered the house and the first thing to catch my eye was the postcard declaming the archetypal Romantic stance on creativity: poetry should flow freely, and if  forced,  doesn’t have the right to exist. Until now, I’ve found the quotation rather suspect and believed it the source of volumes of dreadful unedited drivel claiming to be divinely inspired. I still challenge the notion that the first draft is the best draft and strongly believe in drafting, grafting and crafting. But in that moment I wanted to take that postcard and pin it to my computer monitor so that every time I sat down to write I’d be reminded that it shouldn’t feel like ‘shovelling coal’ to quote one of my own poems.

The past few months have taught me the value of writing ‘horizontally’ rather than ‘vertically’.  This means writing several first drafts one after the other so that I have a string of titles rather than drafting, grafting and crafting one piece at a time. Since my ‘retreat’ I’ve attempted to get into periods of drafting only, so that Iwrite more quickly and the ideas flow fast and free. When I have three or four raw pieces I then decide to take them onto the next level i.e. I put on my editing head. It’s liberating. It also means you have a distance on the drafts so when you return to them you’ve had a month or more away and can view them more objectively.

Now some reading this  might say, that’s how I’ve always worked, and that’s certainly how I used to work but as I got more page-obsessed I changed my practice. It’s lead to writer’s block and at times, painfully slow progress. It’s amazing what you can do when you just let the ideas come out. An extreme example of this happens to me every morning about 8am when I step into the shower. I almost always have a creative insight. However, since the clocks went back, I’ve been a bit out of sync which makes me question whether the magic has nothing to do with the shower and everything to do with the hour. I’ve also noticed that since British Summertime ended I have the serious urge to hibernate. The poetry’s not coming as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it feels more like the leaves falling off a tree. ..But one thing I do know, if it’s like shovelling coal at first draft stage, there’s something wrong with the fundamental idea. I only flow when the idea’s fully formed. No more spending three months on one poem. The first draft should take a matter of hours…

Dark and Light

It’s been a relatively busy month with readings. And I’ve become aware just how many dark poems I’ve written when I start writing set lists and realise that most of them are about death and/or violence. Now when most people think of Chaucer they think bawdy. More precisely, they think The Miller’s Tale, they don’t think of beheadings, near fatal attacks or the killing of a seven year old boy. The less popular tales are less popular for a reason: they’re so dark. I love dark. My default is noir. But I recently completed a version of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, the cock and the fox, which is actually funny. And was fun to write. It’s not all gloom and doom.

National Poetry Day, 6 October, I did a breakfast reading for Poet in the City. I’m a post-wastershed poet and like a challenge. The challenge was not getting up at 5.30 a.m. , it was finding poems suitable for an audience at 8 a.m. I struggled a bit but managed to come up with a mixture  from Bloodshot Monochrome, with some Chaucer rewrites e.g. The Cook’s Tale and the Nun’s Priest’s. I couldn’t resist slipping in a bit of noir, inviting the audience to imagine they’d never been to bed, so this was in fact the morning after the night before. Got away with it.

Peckham Library was a different challenge. A much longer set: first half published stuff, second half, Chaucer rewrites, and I was really aware how dark a collection Bloodshot Monochrome is. I chose not to mix earlier poems for light relief but ended up changing a couple  because it was just too intense. I’d deliberately learnt Sharps and Flats, a rap based on the Prioress’s Tale which I dedicated to Damilola Taylor. It needed to come off the page and I had to do it justice not just for the painful subject matter but also the fact that he was killed in North Peckham estate after a visit to the library.  When you perform a poem like that you have also to give the audience some light at the end of the tunnel. The poem attempts to do this, but other poems must help.

So I spent today revisiting the Reeve’s Tale, which is still trying to find its voice. But I find darkness pulling me to take on The Physician’s Tale. I already have a form in my head, I just need to read the original to work out what shade of dark I’m aiming for. In the small hours of Sunday morning, in that extra hour, I’ll start to find words, phrases that will somehow connect overnight and translate to my fingers on Sunday morning.