Poems

Bagpuss, Gump and Dancing Queen

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I haven’t done one of these Realtime Roundups since the end of June, mainly because I’ve been busy working on a Realtime Notes website (see above) — a torturously slow process during which I’ve cursed myself many times for writing so many poems.

I’m hoping the site will be ready to share in the next week. I’ll keep doing these round-ups occasionally and post them on the new site. In the meantime, here’s a quick-ish roundup of the greatest hits of the last three months.

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July saw Realtime Notes take briefly to the streets, with a placard against Trump.

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But the best Trump poem was probably this one. Occasionally, I achieve escape velocity and nail a couple of good lines — the last two lines here would make a good blurb for the project as a whole.

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As ever, there were plenty of realtime epitaphs to write. You’ll soon be able to read them all in the Deaths section of the website. (Hooray!)

This three-month period started with Peter Firmin (above) and also included Steve Ditko, Saman Guman, Barry Chuckle, VS Naipaul, Aretha Franklin, Rachael Bland, Burt Reynolds, Chas Hodges, Charles Aznavour…

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… and John McCain, whose passing inspired a national unity that included everyone except the president.

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At the end of July, I had a brief falling-out with my keypad, maybe brought on by the fact that I was approaching an entire year of realtime writing.

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The one-year anniversary of Realtime Notes came around on 17 August, and the poem above recounted a domestic scene that I think made for a good ending. ‘Everything might happen’ could be a collection title.

I had thought about finishing Realtime Notes altogether on the anniversary and wasn’t even sure on the day itself whether I’d keep going or not. As it turned out, I was glad I did, because the following week brought that crazy evening where Paul Manafort was found guilty and Michael Cohen took a plea deal.

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I ended up writing five poems in the space of an hour, starting with this one about Michael Cohen…

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… and culminating in a minor epiphany where I realised the entire story of America could be told in those two rhyming characters famous for their red caps.

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I continued my recurring anagram obsession with this open letter to Ivanka Trump (in each pair of lines, the second is an anagram of the first).

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And there was a moment of pure realtimeness when a fly landed on my computer screen and joined me in a collaborative poem that I broadcast live on Instagram Stories. Unfortunately, I’m having trouble retrieving it from my Instagram archive and it may be lost forever. It was really good.

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Among September’s greatest hits were this response to conservative pundit Ben Shapiro…

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…this reworking of Matthew 7:26…

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… and this summation of the state of the Brexit talks. (This is the second draft with an improvement to one line. From now on, I’m going to pretend it’s the first draft.)

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So far, October has brought Theresa May dancing onto the stage…

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… and as we opened this roundup with Bagpuss, maybe we should finish it with Rainbow.

Thanks as always to anyone following along. I’ll write more when the website completes its slow trudge towards the internet.

How I wrote this poem wrong

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(Latest monthly round-up of Realtime Notes on Instagram.)

I thought I'd start this month by talking about the process of writing one poem, and what typically goes right and wrong. 

So I normally get up at 7.23am and if it's my turn (we have a genius alternating system), I'll go down, stick his Go Jetters on, make two cups of tea, bring one up, go back down and get about 20 minutes to surface. I check my phone, see Peter Stringfellow has died and the mind inevitably starts ticking over. I tend to skim-read articles and let the mind alight on key words, and the second paragraph of the Guardian article included the sentence: "Stringfellow, who had cancer but wanted to keep his illness private, died early on Thursday after spending time in hospital." 

If you're in the mindset of writing a poem, it's not a huge mental leap to see a rhyme in cancer/dancer, but when I saw the word 'private' it felt like an idea – from the curtained booth of the nightclub to the curtained booth of a hospital ward. So I wrote the first line and then the word 'seedily' came to mind and line 3 happened before line 2. Then I wanted to mention the curtained booth, which led me to the rhyme with 'truth', which is a better word than I would have found if I hadn't needed it to rhyme. 

The 'needily/seedily' also set up a structure for 'shyly, slyly' and, having written the first stanza, I knew the second would have to follow the same structure, with lines 2 and 4 rhyming. By about 8am, I had the first stanza done and a rough version of the second. Then the morning routine kicks in – breakfast, getting ready for school etc. And this is where the writing isn't exactly 'real time' – there's still an internal editing process as your subconscious ticks over, and then you return to it fresh after a break. 

So by about 8.40am, I'm looking at it fresh again and making improvements in the second stanza, and feeling a certain urgency to get it done because I had other work to get on with.

But to be honest, I messed it up. I wanted to end with 'that's all you get dear', and I set up the rhyme with 'titillatingly tilting to cup your ear'. But for some reason I messed up the penultimate line – introducing 'young' is a whole different vowel sound, and the metre generally goes a bit clunky. Coming back to it now, even at a glance, I don't know why I didn't write 'her hot breath so young and near'. That would be an immediate improvement. 

So the question is – why don't I just slow down and write better poems? Sometimes I think I should, but I also think it's part of the bigger spirit of the project to keep the rough edges and embrace the highs and lows. When it goes right, it makes those moments better. And what you lose in craft, you gain in urgency – it's a different experience reading a poem in that 'breaking news' moment when the event takes place, rather than weeks later. And even reading it afterwards, it changes your perception to know it was written 'in the moment' – it alters what the poem is. (To some extent, I'm not sure how much I care about people reading it afterwards – even if 500 people see it fleetingly on Instagram, it's more people than read most poems.)

Anyway, apologies if all of this is more interesting to me than it is to you. The newsletter will now speed up.

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If likes and shares are a good measure, I had some big hits this month. This one owes a debt to Shooting Stars. (Great to see how Bob Mortimer is now at national treasure status with Gone Fishing – his Athletico Mince stuff is operating at the highest possible level of humour.)

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My biggest hit was this in-the-moment tribute to Christopher Chope – an example of a poem that I think is better because it was written quickly. Just not the same if you do it three weeks later. 

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I do get sweary sometimes, so it's nice to balance it out with some gentle pastoral stuff. Some people think 'prose poem' is a contradiction, but I think it's a genuine 'thing' – doing away with the linebreaks, but retaining the heightened attention to musicality and rhyme that you get in a poem. 

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This was another one with a domestic setting – you don't always need someone to die or a war to start for things to be realtime news. 

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But, as ever, people did die, including Peter Stringfellow, Anthony Bourdain, Gena Turgel (the 'bride of Belsen') Jerry Maren (Wizard of Oz), Leslie Grantham and Kate Spade. Something touching and meaningful about the way a brand can outlive its founder.

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Half-rhyme of the month was 'Stormy Daniels' and 'Attorney General's'. 

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And it was the month the World Cup started – it's enjoyable trying to keep track of the mood in poems.

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As our entire government is holed up in Chequers for 'crunch day', I'll finish with Brexit and a tribute to Mr Rees-Mogg (below).

Thanks for reading – July already looks pretty interesting and the moron is heading this way...

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Yip, Witchell and stand-up

Further updates from Realtime Notes – Instagram poetry written in rapid response to current events. This month's newsletter is reproduced below.

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I bought a new book this month (well done Nick) – a collection of verse by Yip Harburg, better known as the lyricist behind 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow', 'Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?' and 'It's Only a Paper Moon' (inspiration for the poem above). 

I've always liked those great American lyricists – brilliant players with language and writers of some of the most romantic words ever written, but who always treated it essentially as a trade.

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It turns out Yip Harburg was also a politically engaged writer with a lifelong commitment to social justice (you can tell from the Paper Moon lyrics quoted above, which is what got me Googling him). He channelled this into light verse, which was eventually collected into a book illustrated by the great Seymour Chwast.

It includes stuff like this:

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And this:

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That's nice, isn't it? Feels like it would slot straight into Instagram and Twitter if they had been around.

It's not a great revelation to find people have written light verse about topical subjects before. But it's good to know there were poets responding to Watergate in real time – and there is plenty to enjoy in the poems, long after they were written. In fact, they're better because you know he was writing in the thick of it (like many, his career was blighted by McCarthyist blacklisting – anti-truth, America-first hysteria has a long history). 

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I like to think poems like the one above come from a similar spirit of verbal playfulness in response to serious times. The language of active shooter situations has become ritualistically familiar, but it's the 'active' that always gets me – in contrast to the political paralysis.

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So, deaths. This month's roll call includes Tessa Jowell, Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe and Margot Kidder – the picture of her with Christopher Reeve is a poem in itself when you consider what life brought them afterwards.

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On a happier note, this month brought a royal wedding!

I feel like Nicholas Witchell didn't get enough airtime in the coverage, but this is the eternal Witchellian reality – his duty is to cover the royals until the big occasions when Huw Edwards steps in. Or Dermot O'Leary.

Anyway, I love writing poems about Nicholas Witchell. 

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The moron continues to do what he does, and I continue to search for language in response. These fragments I have shored against my ruins.

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I quite liked this Harvey Weinstein poem – sometimes the form clicks into place when you're pondering the subject matter, and a handy New York / Perp Walk rhyme supplies itself. 

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To finish on an indulgently self-analytical note (my favourite note), I've semi-consciously tried to stake out a territory with Realtime Notes that takes in Yip Harburg-style playful/formal versifying but extends to more surreal/dark experiments and sometimes loosens up into confessional, artfully casual semi-prose.

When the poems come out in a conversational style like the one above, I like the effect it creates – similar to a stand-up's delivery. I have a not-entirely-unserious plan to take up stand-up comedy when I get to the age of 70. I think everyone should try something new at that age, and my advancing senility will give me a good PR hook.

For now, it's on with the poems. 628 poems and 290 days into this now.

I'll leave the last word to Yip – this could easily be a Realtime Note about the renationalisation of the East Coast line.

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Realtime Notes continues on Instagram