Sunday, 24 July 2011

Is there a polite term for . .

older women?

A week or so ago I blogged about Emily Harrison - a brilliant young poet. In the course of this blog I described myself as 'wrinkly' and a 'crone.'

Francis commented - quite reasonably - that these are derogatory terms; I belittle myself by bringing up my age in this way. These are not terms I would use to describe a man. She's right - I wouldn't use them to describe a man. And there I stop, and think - I'm not sure what words I would use to describe a man my age. Geezer? Certainly not. 'Pensioner' sounds far too old, and doesn't include gender. Drawing attention to receding hairlines is too personal.

And - taking this a step further - 'wrinkly' and 'crone' are not words I would use to describe anyone other than myself. I use far kinder words when thinking of my friends. Mostly I use their names - that is enough to underpin the feisty, independent, funny women that they are. At a push they are 'older women' - that gives them dignity, gravitas.

The trouble is that I don't feel dignified. My head is still somewhere in my twenties. But I know my body carries all the indignities of its sixty years. I walk down the street and men look through me. I am sure my grandchildren will, before long, ask if I remember the Romans. And the only way I know to manage this dissonance is to laugh at myself - at the incongruity of dancing round the kitchen while waiting for my hot chocolate to cool down; the way I rub my arthritic knees and then think, maybe, I should go to Nepal in the winter and trek the Annapurnas.

Which leaves me in a quandary. I don't feel I fit the term 'older woman' - it smacks of common sense, and comfortable shoes. So, what do I call myself? I'm happy to laugh at myself, and to use terms like 'wrinkly' and 'crone' - I'm happy in my own aging skin. And there are huge advantages to landing, healthily, into late middle age. Women my age are invisible. We sit in corners in cafes, and people take no notice. We earwig conversations - during a recent trip to America I scribbled, word for word, an argument between three women regarding the need to affirm the self-esteem of their teenaged daughters, all of whom were launched into serious diets. They talked as if I wasn't there. (In evolutionary terms, our usefulness lies in caring for grandchildren. And if invading soldiers are unable to see us, we are more likely to keep those children safe.)

So - how to incorporate all these advantages of aging? 'Crone' - maybe is too harsh; it smacks of Macbeth's witches. But 'wrinkly' - that feels, to me, a wry way of laughing at myself. It doesn't take the realities of age too seriously.

But I do take Francis's point - maybe I have not done other older women any favours.

So - what words would you use? For older women - and men?

Sunday, 17 July 2011

True talent is so rare.

I'm a wrinkly - as most of you know.  And I sit in writers' groups, go to open mic sessions, spend most of my writing life with people whose children (if they had them) are well past the nappy stage.  We have been taught rules, dissect our words obediently.

And then along came Emily.  Aged eighteen.  With her scarlet lipstick and shoes-not-made-for-walking.  She's a poet.  I write that carefully - she's not just a young person who writes poetry.  I wrote poetry in my teens and it was excruciating.  She wears the word with panache.  It is who she is.  Her work is gutsy and honest and funny, rooted in the angst and energy of adolescence but without the whining.  She delivers it with crisp diction, firing words that stick to you.  The last line lingers - swims around the room somehow - and you want her to read the same poem over and over again until every little nuance is swimming too, but you know it won't be, there is always something more, a corner that is still to be explored.

I've no idea if anyone has tried to tame her, to work with rhyme scheme and form, to deconstruct line length.  I hope not.  Her talent is raw and wonderful and exciting.

There are few good reasons to live to be 130.  But one of them is to live long enough to see how Emily discovers which paths to take.  I want her to ignore the advice of crones like me; to carry on surprising us with the brutal honesty (and wit) with which she approaches her poetry.  I have no doubt she has the ability to be successful (in the sense that her work will be widely read), but want her to remain rooted in the immediacy of her feelings and experiences.  I want her to have plenty of Life, but not so much she drowns in it.

Am I envious - no.  I've made my own choices.  I've had plenty of Life.  Rather - I love cheering her from the sidelines.  It's a privilege, even to be peripheral (as I am), to her early efforts.  Emily Harrison - remember that name.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Good words, bad words, or just words?

Writers groups are unexpected things.  I think that's why I like them.  One week we can struggle over a couple of lines of poetry, this adverb, that adverb, with too many silences and countless coffee stops to keep us going; other times we all talk at once and there are too many ideas and opinions for one little group.  And I spend most of the bus-ride home thinking of all the things I could have said.

This week one member presents a 'found' poem - he had extracted a conversation between some young people on Facebook and organised this into a poem.  Leaving aside whether this was a poem or not, we homed in on the language - particularly the first line:

'Stay balls deep bitch.'

Is there anything poetic about that?  And is it valid to use adolescent monosyllables as the basis of poetry?  Does the language code of adolescents have any value at all?  Some members of the group dismissed any value in the grunting communications of teenagers.  Teenagers use words, partly to exclude adults, and partly to affirm a sense of belonging among themselves.  Their dictionary is a transitory, evolving thing - in effort to keep one step ahead of tedious grown-ups who insist on trying to keep up with them.  But does this mean that the words they use have any less value - and that they can't be the basis of poetry?

(And is it so different from the jargon used by lawyers and doctors and estate agents - all designed to affirm membership of a clique?)

One member of the group felt very strongly that such language had no place in poetry.  The words of the King James Bible have survived because they are beautiful - irrespective of their message they flow in a satisfying, mellifluous way.  And, because they are beautiful, they can be used to explore deeper truths that survive long after the writer is forgotten.  The breadth of vocabulary, the music of the words - it all combines to underpin the exploration of profound ideas and search for meaning.  Surely these are the words that poetry, especially modern poetry, should be utilised.  (They were new, daring words once.  King James's compilers did not use the language of Chaucer.)

My view - words and simply words.  They are neither good nor bad, and are given meaning only by the context in which we try to understand them.  I think modern writers should relish both the complex language of classical poetry and the immediate, the transitory, words of teenagers - or of any other group with its own codes and mores.  We should embrace the vibrancy of evolving language, arranging words in such a way that we communicate meaning to anyone willing listening to us.

(And did we organise any words to find me a book title?  Possibly.)

Monday, 11 July 2011

On taking a day off!

So - I haven't got a title (see my last post - just in case you thought I was referring to a ladyship).  Waiting for a title is a bit like waiting for a late train.  Shall I count to 20, 30, 50 - and then look at the board to see if it might turn up any time soon?  Or maybe change my destination - who wants to go to London anyway, when Cheltenham beckons.  I've revisited title ideas, and come up with the same drivel over and over again.

Time to take a day off.  What shape should this day take?  A trip to London . . . No - following on from some of the thoughts that swam about after reading Kathleen Jamie's book (see a couple of posts ago) I decided to have a silent day.  She talks of the demise of the Sabbath, a day when everyone was expected to put down their pens, their picks and shovels, and reflect on the almighty; she suggests that this lack of quiet space makes the noisy times even more intrusive.  Her writing - which is poetic, and beautiful, and all sorts of repetitive words like that - is testimony to her capacity to seize the quiet times.

I don't do religion, but I do, at times, think I long for a space where I can be really quiet.  Although I live alone, I still feel the raucous onslaught of 2011.

I made minimal rules. I would spend the day with no TV, no computer, no radio, and no music.  I would only do one thing at a time (so no playing with the crossword while I ate; no stirring soup with a book in my hand; no going for a long walk plugged into a radio).  I would telephone my old aunt (she would have a fit of the vapours if I didn't), and answer the phone if it rang.  But I wouldn't ring anyone else. And I could eat and drink whatever I liked - this was not a hair-shirt, bread-and-water day.

It was an interesting day.  Some of it was wonderful - I went for a long walk in Savernake Forest and noticed a little pink flower clinging to the bank near my house - why hadn't I seen it before?  And the cat-like cry of the buzzard - what had upset him?  Was I too close to a nest?  Surely he could see there was no chance I'd shin up his tree to inspect an egg or two.

But eating meals without a distraction was difficult. I made an effort, cooked food that was different, designed to be appetising.  But all that effort and I shovelled it down my throat in less than ten minutes and my stomach struggled with the sudden weight of it.  Another time I'll be more flexible.

There was a low point when I saw the evening stretching in front of me.  All those silent hours, without the distraction of the internet, the TV.  But I read, a bit of Stephen Fry, a few stories in Mslexia, poems in Ambit. Hours slid by without me trying. I used to read like that in my teens, hour after hour, resenting the necessity of meals. As an adult, reading has been fitted in - between work and family and friends and writing and TV and the computer - it was such a joy, discovering that it is still possible to read for that long, oblivious to passing time.

There were other surprises.  I spent far less time faffing - just filling time for the sake of it, no hitting the refresh button on facebook, pottering on twitter until some programme came on the telly. Finding resources in myself was easier than I'd anticipated - I read, I wrote (in my notebook, pages and pages of scribble) and savoured this respite from technology.

Who knows if it will make any difference - to my writing, or to my relations with the way I live. I'm back at the computer today (obviously), but with good resolutions to keep it in its place. I shall keep faffing time to a minimum. I shall listen for the buzzard; maybe he has a story to tell.

And yes, I may do it again, from time to time. It's wonderful how noisy one's mind becomes when the world is silent.

Monday, 4 July 2011

A continuum between poetry and prose?

Sorry - this title looks like an essay question, and I mean it to be more of a discussion.  So here are my thoughts - I'm sure you will have others.

Yes, I know this blog is about publishing Gap Years, but these are waiting days - I have a couple of stories simmering, but nothing that drives me to the computer at sparrowfart; and so I have savoured the luxury of more time to read.

I stumbled across Findings, by Kathleen Jamie (published by Sort of Books in 2005).  She is a Scottish poet but this is not a poetry book.  Rather it is a collection of observations, from watching ospreys nesting in the mountains, to the necessities of finding a home for her great-grandmother, to meandering round a medical museum full of body-parts that make her cry.  So what, you might say - nothing there to send me rushing to the book.  Indeed, I'm struggling to find any sort of description that shows how special this book is.

I can only tell you that it is beautifully written.  Kathleen uses all her skills as a poet: her descriptions are lyrical, her reflections are tender, funny.  All her sentences balance.  Her word selections are sometimes surprising (I'd never thought of the feathers of sheep's wool caught in brambles before as 'dollops' - but, when they are soggy, that is exactly what they are.)  She has some wonderful metaphors - the cry of a peregrine is described  as 'like a turnstile pleading for oil.'

As she rambles up mountains she muses, about the survival of the corncrake, and the dialogue between humankind and the environment.  She suggests that we had lost the capacity to notice, to contemplate; the secularisation of the Sabbath has left us bereft of time  to nurture our thinking, our noticing of everything that is around us.  She tackles the subject gently, leaving it without answers - and me wondering how I would cope if I offered myself one day a week without radio, music, TV, computer. (Maybe another blog post there.)

Her skill - as I see it - lies in the tenacity of her noticing.  That, and her ability to describe what she sees using the most beautiful, appropriate, and compelling language - and overlap of poetry and prose.  Her writing refuses to comply with the demands of genre but is such a joy to read.