NPM_Poster_06_LargeSecond April, so the fools have departed, thank God, with their fake headlines and their practical jokes that were never quite practical enough… One friend joked that he had had an amazing stroke of good luck and then had to spend the evening frantically letting everyone know it was only a jape, and feeling humbled by how so many people thought this wondrous news had indeed befallen him. Another joked that something happened to his bike, and then something did. They were both poets, too, you’d think they’d know better than to tempt fate like that. It seemed an inauspicious start to to a whole month of poetry…

Then the dust that was so mysteriously covering all the cars on Monday morning – as well as the leaves of my little bay tree, though the papers never mentioned plants – turned out to be the sands of the Sahara, blown in, and is still with us. Very romantic. Dreams of camels, Bedouins in billowing robes, the desert scene in Half Magic (‘I for one’, said Martha, shaking sand from her roller skate, ‘will never play in a sandbox again’), all swirling down to rest on my little balcony. And today we’re informed that we’re on Level 9 pollution, from that and other things. So it’s not Chaucer, exactly; more like ‘that April with his shours of soote’.

The air is feeling rather heavy out there; it’s the sand, or some lead they didn’t tell us about. Maybe that’s a good reason to stay inside. You can write some poems. I was telling some of my students the other week about NaPoWriMo, or National Poetry Writing month. It’s an American thing, where this is indeed National Poetry Month, and it comes from the annual November jape, National Novel Writing month. I know lots of people know all about this already and have done it, worn the T shirt, and collapsed. But my class didn’t know about it. Basically, you write a poem a day for the month of April.

Never fear, there’s a website to help you! The NaPoWriMo website. If you sign up officially, the idea is to have a blog where you post your poems every day. Every day the main website features the blog of a participant, and a small press or magazine, and a prompt for a poem.

Can’t get fairer than that, can you? And I have a friend who did it one year and wrote the tiniest little poems you can imagine, and later strung them into one long one in sections. Yesterday’s prompt was to go and click the button – like what used to e spinning the wheel – at the rather bizarrely wonderful Bibliomancy Oracle. (I’d think it was even more wonderful if it hadn’t answered my question – me there, trembling as at the mouth of the cave, with my life problem hovering on the rim of my brain, ready to spill over into everything – with a little bit of minimalist gobbledegook about a dog.) So go on, you can do it. Click the clicker and write a little poem.

And if that isn’t enough prompts, the wonderful poetry being that is Jo Bell is running a project for the whole of this year – it started on New Year’s – called 52. Its strapline is, ‘Write a poem a week. Start Now. Keep going.’The website essentially features a weekly prompt, and there’s a Facebook page where people are posting up their poems; I know a couple of people taking part and it’s great, and a massive success. Once a month a guest poet does the prompt, and some of the prompts are more like brilliant exercises; it’s a chance to see lots of different approaches. To approach from many different angles.

The prompts come out very Thursday morning, so tomorrow is the next one. It hardly needs to be said – or does it – that these activities are open to absolutely anyone, anyone at all, who has a feel to write some poems with some help, and maybe share them. You can be a well-published writer, a famous (ahem) poet, or a complete newcomer who feels like putting some structure on your cravings.

It’s April, it’s the poets’ month. We may as well try and enjoy it.

N.b., In the interests of full disclosure. I once tried to do NaPoWriMo. I used my time walking across Green Park to the tube to think about poems, and I wrote a few, but none of them ever got anywhere. I think I lasted till Day Six.

PS: I was going to use this year’s National Poetry Month poster, but it gave me hives. sorry.

What makes a poem a poem. I was telling a student just yesterday how a poem, in one sense, can operate like a joke: the setup, more elaborate or less so, and the punch line. And we all know that ‘Timing is the secret of comedy’.

So, timing. In a poem.

One, and the way Charles Bernstein uses it here, is thinking about WHEN to release information in the poem. Because even a lyric poem, even a haiku, is a narrative of some sort, and the external, visible structure of the piece must be mirrored by an internal, rhetorical structure. WHEN does the reader or listener need to know this? Or that? What about suspense, what about building perception one detail at a time?

Then of course there’s tempo. Tempo is how fast the whole experience is – not how long, but how fast time moves within it. This is down to a variety of factors, like what words you say – how resistant they are in the mouth, how many sounds you have to make to say them – and line length, and punctuation.

Glyn Maxwell says (on his book On Poetry), ‘What is punctuation but a polite request to time?’ One mistake people make with punctuation in a poem is to think it doesn’t matter. Another is to think of it purely in terms of grammatical correctness – which is important, of course , but when people are worrying about being correct the worry generally stops them from being correct, and I see a lot of clunkers. Lots of time people read poems by someone like WS Merwin, or someone else using no punctuation at all, and they go: “I don’t get it.’ They say, ‘I can’t deal with this lack of punctuation, what is it about?’ These same people can have a long and meaningful conversation (sometimes) about the uses of various different punctuation marks in creating a caesura, in other words in controlling the speed of the line, but they seem not to think in the same terms about no punctuation at all.

Poems are akin to, though not technically the same as, songs. They are speech made music, in that the language in a poem has to carry all the emotion of a song, only without melody, harmony, elongated notes, etc. Timing, as in even a time signature. now I know metrics is not what Bernstein is talking about here, since that is not his kind of poetry, but metrics is a way of creating a time signature and thus addressing one aspect of your issue of timing. Also, keeping within a metrical pattern, especially if you have a rhyme scheme, might mean a certain amount of time must elapse before you can present a certain key image or event.

Momentum is an aspect of timing, for sure, and repetition – like the ticks of a clock – can play all kinds of tricks with time. Look how Bernstein g0es, ‘It’s not’ – ‘It’s not’ – ‘Its not’ – it’s like tock, tock, tock – and the more you cram into a line, a poem, the faster you have to race through it, and the longer it seems in retrospect because it had so much in it. This can, as in life, be a bad thing or a good thing. As the poet you can optimise this for the benefit of your reader.

And finally – with an apology to the person whose poems I had promised to read this morning in advance of a tricky reading tomorrow night (my timing is all out this weekend, apologies) – you can see how this video operates as a little lesson in timing a reading. The watch alarm is a flourish only really effective when used like this – as a prop, a dramatic device – but do look at the video and notice how he uses time, in his telling. He gives it space, he lets it breathe, he keeps it simple, when he needs to pause he pauses – and then he pounces.

Now I’m going to read those poems.

Oh Hugo Williams we love you get up

March 20, 2014

Today marks the official publication of this book: the first new collection from Hugo Williams since West End Final in 2009 (with its brilliant poems evoking his mother, the very glamorous actress, Margaret Vyner). But  this isn’t just any new collection. It coincides with a campaign by  the poet’s family to get him a new kidney, […]

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This Mother’s Day, let’s get rid of the old bag. Har har.

March 14, 2014

Here at Baroque Mansions we get a lot of PR emails. Very, very rarely do they have anything to do with the contents of the blog, or with anything we might even conceivably have an interest in. I made a mistake once, years ago, of clicking ‘lifestyle’ on a media listing – back when I […]

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Happy St David’s Day, everyone

March 1, 2014

My annual St David’s Day e-card has arrived from Cousin Ceri, and here it is: So wear a daffodil, eat a Welsh cake, and sing something, and you’ll be celebrating the day. Nearly spring now.  

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New poetry, old clothes, work, more work

February 21, 2014

SO MUCH to say. I’ve been working a flat-out day-job contract for the past four weeks – scriptwriting for a series of 24 three-minute videos, which take the form of a little mini-soap, for an English for Integration project. It’s one of those jobs you say yes, four days a week, and instantly it swallows […]

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And another one: RIP PSH

February 2, 2014

It’s hard not to feel a bit buffeted, isn’t it. Here’s what I just wrote on my Facebook: Well THAT was a rollercoaster! Amanda Knox, then Woody Allen – and no, I don’t want to hear what you think of it please! And no, every statement isn’t an invitation to hours of relatively hostile cross-examination, […]

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Good night, Pete…

January 28, 2014

More to follow perhaps; there’s an awful lot going on in my head. But for today, this is it.

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