Whee, a balloon

Far Off Blog

May 2013

Writing prompts and chocolate chips

Hey folks! You’ve got just over a month until submissions for our third issue, Under the Bed, are due in. That’s right, thirty three days and counting. Simon says you better start writing. But in case you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, we’ll be posting a series of writing prompts here over the next few weeks. Here’s number one.

Write a prose piece (as long or as short as you like) beginning or ending with the following words:

“On entering the room, all he saw was a trail of crumbs leading towards the bed.

‘Sarah?’ he called tentatively? ‘Sarah?’”

Don’t forget to send your creations to submissions@faroffplaces.org! We’re looking forward to reading them…

Why I love poetry / Why I hate poetry

Way back in the mists of time (I think it might have been early March), two of our number had an argument about poetry. Annie, unsurprisingly for a lit student who manages a poetry blog, was a fan. Trevor less so. Never one to let an argument slip, Annie challenged Trevor to a duel of words one rainy Sunday afternoon. The result? See for yourself.

(To any poets who are reading this and are now unsure about whether to submit your work to us: never fear. Annie is the one who has the final editorial say around here. Mwahahaha.)

Annie: It really annoys me when people say they ‘don’t like poetry’. That’s like saying you don’t like music - as if there’s no difference between Mozart and Madonna. Sure, there’s some dire poetry out there, and it’s all a matter of taste, but that’s just the thing. You have to sniff around to find the kind of thing you do like - and then you’ll be hooked. After all, most of us have a favourite section in bookshops, right? Just because I’m not a huge sci-fi fan doesn’t mean that I feel I have to steer clear of every other novel out there. What is it that makes poetry different?

Trevor: I suppose I’m one of those people that, if pressed, would admit to not actually liking poetry. Not that I actively dislike it; poetry as a genre of writing just seems to be insanely difficult to get into.

I think your music analogy is a good one, except would-be poetry fans don’t have an easy gateway to get them started. You can come to music for the first time and start with something approachable, then explore from there. There’s no entry point like that for poetry — it’s like saying you want to get into music and being given a choice between Anglican psalm chanting and Mogwai.

Who are The Beatles of poetry?

Annie: I think this is a myth perpetuated by poorly taught English classes, where we’re made to believe we have to analyse each sub-clause to death before we can claim to have an idea of the poem as a whole.

I’d disagree on two levels. Firstly, not all poetry is full of complicated allusions. Poems like Wendy Cope’s hilarious Tumps or Auden’s bleak Stop all the clocks (made famous thanks to Four Weddings and a Funeral) are immediate and hard-hitting, albeit in very different ways.

Secondly, a lot of poems out there are enjoyable even if you don’t get the analogies -we just need to stop being so hung up on understanding everything. Think about Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress - you can be amused by the logic of the narrator trying to get his girlfriend into bed even if you don’t know what the Humber is. (I still don’t know what the Humber is, and I’ve liked this poem for years.) Equally, poetry like Seamus Heaney’s Singing School is packed with allusions which are great fun to unravel, but even without any of the background knowledge the sound and music of the poem are a joy to run over your tongue. I think that’s something that’s too often forgotten at school - a lot of poems are written for the joy of playing with language, rather than for transmitting some kind of universal truth, and language is something we all have at our disposal, without any specialist training or knowledge.

the beatles

I have a feeling a lot of poetry aficionados would jump on me if I tried name The Beatles of poetry… But to risk it: Robert Frost, perhaps?

Trevor: Tumps is exactly the kind of navel-gazing I find so off-putting; it’s poetry about poetry! Metapoetry! Cope is being precious and clever and she really wants you to notice. Ugh. And don’t even get me started on To His Coy Mistress which, while endearingly purple, is basically incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t endured it as an excruciatingly awkward 10th-grade English student.

This is what I don’t understand — in all other writing we tend to value clarity over style, but poetry doesn’t seem to care if you can understand it or not. ‘Playing with language’ sounds grand, but is it still language if a native speaker can’t puzzle out the intended meaning? It’s like literary prog-rock.

And Robert Frost is probably the best we’re going to get, even if he’s still pretty prog-rock. Maybe Frost is the Radiohead of poetry? Slightly dated and a little bit pretentious, but still socially acceptable?

Annie: I suppose it depends what you’re comparing poetry with. If your standard is a newspaper article, yes, a lot of poetry fails pretty spectacularly. (Although some of Brecht’s exile poetry could give the Guardian a run for its money.) But poetry is an art and language is its tool. To return to The Beatles, I generally listen to Here Comes the Sun to enjoy the mood of the song, not to think about what it’s ultimately trying to tell me - and reading Adrienne Rich’s love poems isn’t so much different.

On a different note, maybe it’s not always such a bad thing to be challenged, to think about the way we use language and the way a different turn of phrase can echo. Poetry often calls for our participation, invites us to turn a sentence round in our head so that we can giggle at the innuendo of it. (Think John Donne.)

Dated? Try reading John Burnside. Pretentious? Have you come across any dirty limericks recently?

Trevor: I hadn’t heard of Burnside — he seems a lot more approachable. Why don’t poetry readers cite authors like him instead of Shelley or Keats or whomever. It’s still somewhat inscrutable, but less so. An improvement.

I think what I’ve been trying to say has mostly been that poetry is over-burdened with challenge; it’s too much ‘art’ and not enough ‘popular culture’. In most of the arts you get a huge spectrum of complexity and challenge, but poetry seems unbalanced. Literature has room for both Harry Potter and Ulysses, music has Here Comes the Sun alongside Quartet for the End of Time. Poetry seems to me to be all Messiaen and no Beatles, at least to me.

Though I admit I hadn’t been thinking of things like limericks (and haiku!) as poetry. Maybe I’ve just defined ‘poetry’ in my head as ‘wanky art poetry’? In which case I’d say that poetry is doing fine, but maybe has something of an image problem. What do you think?

Annie: Poetry definitely has an image problem, sadly. English teachers and the Romantics have a lot to answer for. But poets like John Burnside are the big names in the poetry world at the moment - the problem is they just don’t get much airspace outside of it. If you enjoy Burnside’s work, check out Jean Atkin, Simon Armitage, and Hugh McMillan. They’re all masters of sensual language and yet are gloriously down to earth.

Hopefully poetry’s image is beginning to change though. There are some great projects out there like The Itinerant Poetry Librarian, The Poetree and, dare I say it, Far Off Places which are all about making poetry fun and accessible without losing any of the juicy bits.

Image: (cc) SomeDriftwood/ Flickr

(Insert Abba pun here.)

You might have noticed that there have been some stifled high-pitched giggles emanating from Far Off Places HQ recently. (Or fophq, as we like to call ourselves. Try saying that after a drink. Or on second thoughts, don’t.) Admittedly, this might have had something to do with Romania’s costume at Eurovision this weekend. However, we haven’t just spent the last few days counting smoke machines and coming up with Abba related puns. Instead, we’re even more excited about some news rather closer to home. (Sorry, Bonnie Tyler.)

(Drum roll, smoke machine, change of lighting.)

We’ve been dreaming for a while of producing an audioversion of Far Off Places to sit beside the digital publication, and have decided to get this baby rolling, starting with Issue II. (Eee!)

The plan:

1) We will release a limited number of pieces from each issue as podcasts in the weeks leading up to and following the publication of the digital edition. In the case of Issue II, these are tentatively planned for June - August. This’ll give you a chance to whet your appetite for the upcoming issue. (Miam.)

2) We’ll then package up recordings of all the pieces from that issue and release them as an audiobook.

3) And then we’ll start again with the next issue!

We’ll be keeping our authors in the loop throughout the recording process, with some Edinburgh-based authors also lined up to record their own pieces. We’d also love to get other readers involved, but this is all a bit dependent on logistics. However, if you think you might be interested, do drop us a line!

The audiobook plan has got our pulses racing, as there is nothing quite as luxurious nor as comforting as having someone read to you. So whether you’re looking to curl up on the sofa for a bedtime story, or want some company while you do the ironing, do check back here over the next few weeks. Far Off Places at your service.

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