Realtime Notes: Quarterly Review pt.1

I recently passed the three-month mark in a project called Realtime Notes – a series of Instagram poems written rapidly in response to current events. I started on 17 August and have been posting at least once every day – currently on note 189 in about 90 days, so more like two a day on average.

The quarterly milestone seems like a chance to take stock, so here are some reflections on the journey so far. The review comes in two parts – the second part will contain some general reflections on the writing process. This first part is about (to borrow Hillary’s phrase) what happened. And a lot happened.

1. Terrorism

The project started with a poem about the terrorist attack in Barcelona, written in a maudlin moment on my own in the pub. Since then, incidents have included the shootings at Mandalay Bay and Sutherland Springs, the Manhattan van attack, and the failed Parsons Green attack in London (above).

Responding to these events in the moment means you don’t get the distance or perspective that time provides, but you do gain some of the emotional immediacy that comes with that weird, sickly breaking news moment. Wordsworth talked about poetry as ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’,  but this is more like emotion recollected while feeling emotional.

2. Natural disasters

Nature kept things pretty real, from the earthquakes in Baghdad and Mexico to hurricane season and the aftermath in Puerto Rico and elsewhere. The hurricanes poem (above) was an outlier in that it took longer to write than most of the poems. It’s an anagram poem where the right-hand column uproots and rearranges the words on the left. 

3. Deaths

This is a cheerful post so far, isn’t it? Inevitably, celebrity deaths were a recurring feature (among the countless anonymous deaths in Myanmar and elsewhere). Bruce Forsyth, John Ashbery, Lady Lucan, Hugh Hefner, Tom Petty (above), Ian Brady, Sean Hughes, Fats Domino, Charles Manson... 

4. Brexit

There was also a lot of Brexit going on. Negotiations, coughed conference speeches, David Davis, Liam Fox, Boris Johnson, Priti Patel, a general backdrop of geopolitics unfolding in the background of life. Again, the above poem was a slight outlier – a reverse Brexit alphabet that took a while to draft. 

I also continue to pursue my theory that Brexit MP Dan Hannan’s full name is Daniel Hanniel-Nanniel. This is entirely false, but it feels true and I intend to keep treating it as such.

5. Russia

The other unfolding story is Russia and its influence on various elections. One day, this will be a grand narrative that we’ll all watch on a BBC4 documentary. But it’s interesting (albeit distressing) to live through it in real time, as in the brief breaking news one above. 

It also makes for a good adventure story, tying in nicely with Stranger Things 2. While these Realtime Notes are all individual poems, I like to think of them as part of one continuous work, which is part-novelistic in form.

6. Trump

Talking of Russia, Trump loomed large and moronically over everything. Again, I often think about how all this will look in retrospect, from some (hopefully) calmer vantage point in the future. But it feels worthwhile to record what it’s like now. 

7. Weinstein and men

The Harvey Weinstein story has put a theme of maleness into a lot of the recent poems. If you remember that one poetry class you did in school, you might be aware of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ rhymes, which I explored above. 

halloween.jpg

And Kevin Spacey and Louis CK made a disturbing appearance for Hallowe’en. 

8. Bit of sport

Among the heavier issues, it’s nice to cover sport now and then. I’ve found myself writing live poems while following Liverpool and England games, which becomes a poetic sport in itself – writing and publishing the poem before a change in the scoreline ruins the last line.

9. A loft conversion

Part of the spirit of the project is to mix the personal and the political, the mundane and the momentous, in the same way that they are mixed in real life. For the last couple of months, we’ve had a loft conversion in progress, which provides some useful structural support for various metaphors.

10. Other things

And then there are all the little personal trials and domestic humdrum. From the point of view of the individual consciousness (in this case, mine) a busker or a squirrel in the garden can be as real a character as a president in some other country.

And maybe the squirrel really does know what will happen next.

That’s it for part one – in the next part, I’ll talk (mainly to myself) about the writing process, the poetic approach and the things I find interesting/challenging about the project. 

You can follow along at instagram.com/nickasbury – and sincere thanks if you already have been.

Taste the indifference

The day the John Lewis Christmas ad is released seems like a good time to let you know there is an updated version of Perpetual Disappointments Diary in shops now. Its not in John Lewis as far as we know, although it is in Sainsburys.

For the uninitiated, Perpetual Disappointments Diary is the journal / diary / life planner for people who wish they weren’t in the target market but stoically recognise that they are. It is also the answer to the perennial Christmas question: what do you get the person who has nothing? 

The most significant addition in this version is On This Day — reminders of key events from history including the invention of aspirin, the discovery of anti-matter, the development of the SOS distress signal, and the launch of LinkedIn.

There are also some new demotivational proverbs among the most depressing of the old. 

And there are some extra notes spreads.

All this, plus perennial favourites like Useful Travel Phrases, Bank Insecurity Questions and Personal SWOT Analysis.   

We were surprised to walk into Sainsbury’s recently and see the diary on sale alongside Fearne Cotton’s Happy Journal — an extreme experiment in shopper profiling. (Which will be skewed by the fact that ours is going very cheap.) But it’s exciting to see the diary getting out into the world and in front of more people.

For American readers, there is a version of the diary out with Chronicle Books, which is beautifully produced in a way that somehow makes the contents more disheartening.

Thanks to everyone who has grudgingly supported the diary on its journey from sad little self-initiated project to depressing mass market product.

Please buy the diary in your local independent shop, Blackwell'sAmazon, Hive, Waterstones etc. Or Sainsbury’s.  

New York Times interview

London Metro review

Telegraph article

Failure Magazine review