Following on from Part 1 (see previous post), this is part 2 of the Quarterly Review, looking back on three months of Realtime Notes – Instagram poems written in rapid response to current events.
Part 1 covered What Happened. Part 2 takes the form of more general reflections on why I’m doing it and what I find interesting about it.
In the spirit of a project that sometimes feels like me talking to myself, I thought I’d do this in the form of an interview with myself.
So Nick, why did you start this project?
It wasn’t a planned project – I wrote the first one (above) while sitting in the pub one day, and decided to continue. I don’t think that first one was one of the best poems, but it had some of the main ingredients there – a sense of drawing a link between the personal and the global, and a register that combines wordplay with some serious topics.
I think I started to get that more successfully the next day (note 4 above), where you have elements of family events and world events overlapping. (NB: At this point, I hadn’t learned how to do em-dashes on my phone.)
Before that moment in the pub, I’d had this pressing sense for a while that I wanted to do a new project, and I’d been interested in the idea of ‘live’ writing – exploring an area between the spontaneity of speech and the craft of writing. Realtime Notes isn’t live writing – they’re all edited and crafted, just in a short space of time, usually anything from 3 to 30 minutes, although some take longer. But I’m interested in that idea of treating time as a formal constraint in poetry.
What does that mean?
Well, I think most formal constraints in poetry have more or less gone now. You can make it rhyme or not, scan or not, make it a prose poem. You don’t even have to write it yourself – there are lots of ‘found’ poems around. But one of the last remaining expectations is that poetry should take time. It’s about highly concentrated language, under the pressure of sustained editing and craft – the ultimate ‘slow’ art form.
So to do this thing where you’re rattling out poems as near-first-drafts runs counter to that and feels slightly taboo. I’m not saying it’s a new thing – people have written quick poems before. Coleridge woke up and wrote Kubla Khan in a few minutes before he was interrupted by someone knocking on the door – I’ve always identified with that person knocking on the door.
Why do you do them on your phone?
Initially, it was just the immediate tool to hand. I like writing on screens – I saw an interview with Leonard Cohen where he talks about the added theatricality that comes with bright black on a bright screen, like black fire on white fire. It’s also useful that the Notes app automatically time-stamps each note – I consider those the titles to each poem. And it’s easy to create a screengrab and share it quickly to Instagram.
In some ways, it would have been better for me to do it on Twitter – I have more followers on there as opposed to a couple of hundred on Instagram. But Instagram felt like a friendlier place to put this stuff, which is sometimes more personal. And there’s a nice spirit on Instagram where a lot of people are pursuing creative projects – sketching, photography and so on, so it’s a more natural fit.
Using Notes and Instagram must have limits too?
Yes, in a way they’ve created the main formal constraint on the poems. If you want to keep a portrait format on Notes (which generally looks better and more readable), then it limits the line length. And it’s a struggle to get more than about 17-18 lines onto one Instagram shot. I have tried poems that run over more than one shot, which I may explore more. But generally I enjoy the enforced brevity.
I’ve also done a couple of experiments with video poems, which is a nice extra possibility created by the technology.
Talking of formal constraints, what’s your attitude to form with these poems?
Some of them are a lot more formal than others.
For example, I’ve enjoyed using limericks as a frame for serious subjects.
And there have been a few haikus, mainly as a form of sports reporting.
I find myself using rhyme a lot. I like rhyme – it’s sometimes seen as one of the more childish elements in poetry, but I think it’s deadly serious, the purest form of what poetry does – using language as music as well as message, and creating magic when they combine. When you’re writing at speed, I think it’s more realistic to weave in rhyme rather than achieve perfect scansion.
Speaking of which, I was quite pleased to semi-invent this form, where all the words in a single poem rhyme – I call it a uni-verse.
Other times, I like playing with existing forms like nursery rhymes and song lyrics – it gives you a frame to move around in.
And there is also a recurring biblical theme in a lot of the poems – I like the severe perspective you get when you offset current events with ancient texts.
And then sometimes they’re very loose or more like prose, but then the formal element is in the patterns of thought, and creating these little echoes in the text. Sometimes I directly take phrases from headlines and news reports. I don’t often go for obviously ‘poetic’ sounding language – I like using normal words, but trying to create that little spark that turns them into something more.
Do you feel like you’ve found your ‘voice’?
I’ve been conscious of not getting too stuck in one style, so I deliberately try to mix it up. For example, it would be tempting to try to make every poem a witty piece of wordplay – essentially a gag – but then you end up feeling like a performing monkey.
I want to give myself scope to write looser, weirder, more allusive stuff too. Some of the poems take quite a conversational style, where I guess Billy Collins (the American poet) would be a reference point.
I’m conscious of wanting the poems to be fast to ‘get’ as well as to write, because I think that’s in the spirit of realtime-ness. So I think generally you get something on the first read as you scroll through Instagram, rather than having to spend ages pondering it. But I like to think they reward repeat reading, because you can go back and notice some of the formal elements of how they’re put together.
Generally, I think it’s important for poets to discover what their voice is, and it can take a long time to manage it. One of the advantages of this project is that it forces me down that path of discovery, and accelerates the journey. The time limit removes some of the self-consciousness that comes when you have all the time in the world, and I think it can reveal your voice to yourself. I do feel there’s a recognisable voice there, and it’s a question of working with it rather than getting trapped in it.
Do you get writer’s block?
One of the reasons I’ve kept going at such a pace is that I’m afraid of stopping, because I think then it would start to dry up. In the past, I’ve even found that with Twitter – if you don’t tweet for a few days, you lose your mojo and it’s hard to get back up to speed again.
Some days definitely feel harder than others, but I have a mental list of prompts that I can use to can help spark something. For example, if I have nothing, I might think about form first – like what if you make it a dialogue, or what if you start annotating your own poem (above). Sometimes it can feel like magic – you feel you have nothing and then something appears out of that nothing.
How do you ever do anything else?
It definitely takes up headspace, but it’s mainly spare headspace – I like following the news anyway, and even on the busiest days there are usually gaps...
...like over a coffee or train journey. It might get difficult next time I’m working on another big project, like a book. But I’m hoping to keep going for a while. Generally, I think the more you write the better you get – doing this keeps the brain alert, so when it comes to doing other writing, you don’t have to ‘warm up’ as much.
Where do you see it going in future?
I’m still thinking about that. I’d like to think it would make a good book one day, because as well as being a book of poems, it would also have a plotline, or multiple plotlines, and whatever its value as poetry, it should have a certain value as a diary of one person’s consciousness living through what are pretty extraordinary times.
I also have a vague idea of doing an exhibition, where all the words are on walls and screens and you’re kind of immersed in them, like walking through a year. Maybe that’s a vain hope in both senses of vain, but there could be something in it.
Thanks for talking to me Nick.
Thanks for reading this review – and big thanks if you’ve been following on Instagram. All the likes and comments, on and offline, really mean a lot. And I’ve already made some new connections with interesting people – someone even commissioned a poem.
Meanwhile, the next quarter is already under way (with another sad celebrity death). Follow at instagram.com/nickasbury