Crossing The Language Barrier

This article first appeared in the Roscommon Herald’s ‘The Write Note’ feature in September 2015. I damn well figured 2017 might be time to re-publish. Bloody hell Harry, and all that…

When I first came to Ireland more than a decade ago, I was shocked by the language.  I don’t mean Gaeilge (although that’s startling enough to the English ear) I mean the Irish twist on Anglo Saxon vernacular.  Swearing, in other words.

I am married to a serial curser, and my sister’s married to a sailor, so I’ve heard quite a lot of fruity language in my time. But it seems that what used to be called ‘foul language’ is now quite mainstream, an everyday occurrence, especially in Ireland. What I always thought of as rude words are now pouring out of the radio, on our TV screens, headlining newspaper and magazine articles, and that’s without mentioning graffiti and artwork.

And it’s not just the gutter press and reality TV where the language is colourful. Pick up any novel described as ‘literary’ or a magazine publishing modern fiction, and you can be sure of a stream of abuse littering the text. It seems it is not enough to express yourself using a clever selection of the million or so words in the English language. No, in order to be at the cutting edge of the literary scene you have to include a liberal sprinkling of profanities in your work. That makes it realistic, I’m told. And describe your writing as ‘experimental’ and forgo all rules of grammar and punctuation and you’re on to a winner, but that’s a discussion for another day.

I just wonder when it became so acceptable to swear all the time? In my day, my mother would have had me to the kitchen sink to wash my mouth out with soap and water if I’d only so much as whispered the word that rhymes with sit. She probably only ever did it once – but it had the desired effect and I don’t often swear.

But brought up in Ireland, my own children frequently and cheerfully curse each other, which seems to render the words meaningless. But then if I join in, it stops them in their tracks because I so rarely swear, when I do it has intent and is thereby shocking.

And that’s my point really. Can’t we go back to respecting language in all its forms and save the bad words for compelling, dramatic effect?  I’ve no fecking idea how to make that happen, of course. Perhaps I’ll just start with a swear box…

 

 

A Beginner’s Guide to Procrastination

So. You are going to have a Writing Day. No appointments, no need to leave the house, no distractions – the kitchen floor doesn’t even need mopping – brilliant! Ahead, a whole day of writing .

Here’s what you do:

First, take a nice view, preferably one with a lovely comfy chair in front. Settle down to spend some time relaxing into the moment (mindfulness – it’s all the rage these days), watching the birds/clouds/treetops/passersby/traffic (delete as appropriate).

Imagine what a wonderful poem you could write – a sonnet, perhaps, 14 lines of stunning verse with a twist in the middle – based on your view of such extraordinary ordinariness. Words are hopping through your head, time to pin them down. A villanelle might be the way to go. What about a pantoum? Choices, choices.

Start hunting for a notebook. Not any old pad of paper, discarded chocolate wrapper or old envelope as Emily Dickinson did (I kid you not), but your special hand-stitched, pink floral A5 lined velum pad, the one that’s part bujo and part writing journal, full of  good ideas and the beginnings of poems and stories that you really should get around to finishing.

It might take a while to find the book because along the way you’re going to stumble upon distractions like the post arriving, 22 unread messages in your inbox, and the houseplants crying out for a watering. Then there’s a cup of Earl Grey to brew and a packet of ginger biscuits to locate (that alone can take a while since you’ve hidden them for reasons known only to yourself and you can’t remember where).

At this point, your partner/best friend/neighbour/least favourite sibling/offspring may call for a chat, either in person because they know you’re at home and you’re only writing (which isn’t real work as everyone knows), or because they’re on the same network and like to get their money’s worth with the free calls.

When you can get back to your chair-with-a-view, you might have to ignore the stomach rumbling because it’s now almost lunchtime. But you realise that you don’t have your favourite pen to hand, the one you’ve written your best work with.  Not that you’re superstitious or anything, but why take the chance? Spilt salt over the shoulder and into the eye of the devil, right? (left actually); no walking under ladders (isn’t that just common sense?); no putting shoes on the table (who does that anyway?); no opened umbrellas indoors (no need surely, unless your roof has a leak, which is bad luck in itself).

So the pen with which you wrote your prizewinning poems has been put in a safe place so it doesn’t get lost. And although it is eventually found, it is then definitely time for lunch, because even writers need to eat. It doesn’t need to be a lengthy affair of more than an hour or two. Roasted Butternut Squash Soup from scratch is nice, and you can check out the news headlines while its cooking, make a couple of cats purr at the same time, and dash off a few important WhatsApp messages to make good use of your time. And you know you shouldn’t bolt your food because indigestion isn’t conducive to creativity, is it?

So then it is well into the afternoon when you head back to the nice view, pen and notebook at the ready (because first draft poems have to be proper pen on proper paper, no exceptions).  Time to recapture the moment when you felt a poem coming on.

Drat!

A blank. Nothing. Not really writer’s block (which I’ve heard described as what happens when your imaginary friends won’t talk to you), more a memory lapse. You’ve forgot what were the right words in the right order.

Time to stare into space (or back at the lovely view) in an attempt to pluck appropriate words from the ether. The thesaurus might help, but where did you leave it? If you’ve the energy left to look for it, that might pass a few more minutes…

And there you have it. Procrastination.  Distraction. Writing. A whole day of it. There’s nothing to it really, is there?

In Praise Of. Punctuation!!!

wtf-1I’ve never been much taken with ‘experimental’ fiction, not least because all that stream-of-consciousness malarkey often eschews the rules of good grammar and punctuation.

It’s not that I don’t want to be challenged by what I’m reading (although sometimes I just want to read something that’s easy on the brain, in soothing, warm bath style), but frankly, reading some so-called experimental writing is just plain hard work.

And not worth the effort.

Sticking my head above the parapet here, but I’ve never got on with ‘Ulysses’ (or much else by James Joyce come to that). Gasp! Did I really own up to such heresy?

Of course there’s plenty more out there in the Ulysses mould. Endless tomes challenging the reader with stories that are inside out, back to front,  no beginning, middle or end, from multi or singular points of view (in the same sentence) and the like. Long pages of confusing metaphors, allusions, and vague references that could mean anything (and probably do).

But it’s the one long sentence trend that’s got me just lately. What’s. That. All. About? I mean, just what is wrong with proper punctuation?

eats-shoots-leavesI don’t know why punctuation matters so much to me, but it does. And I probably don’t always get it right, although I try. One of my most-thumbed reference books (beside my Roget’s Thesaurus) is ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ by Lynne Truss, enjoyable for me because I totally get it.

It’s not that I find poor grammar and punctuation unforgivable, just irritating when it’s from people who should know better. A whole novel in one sentence? Really? OK – but why?

I have a friend who is dyslexic and when she writes her annual Christmas letter to me, I don’t bat an eye-lid at the phonetic spelling and sprinkling of inappropriate apostrophes. I usually understand what she’s trying to say and I’m pleased to hear her news.

But if her efforts were to appear in print I’d be miffed. Not just because she’d beaten me to it (ha!), but because the pedant in me wants published material to follow certain rules of grammar and punctuation. And I fizz and grumble when it doesn’t.

And while I realise that not all experimental fiction is ungrammatical, why should novels written in one long, long sentence be held in such high esteem? I just don’t get it.

Of course, when I get around to reading Mike McCormack’s ‘Solar Bones’ (which so many people are raving about) I’ll probably change my mind. I might even have a bash at one terribly long sentence myself, instead of trying to put together so many of my usually short ones.

Meanwhile. Let’s eat Grandma! Or: Let’s eat, Grandma! Or even: lets eat grandma because nothing else here makes sense…

Or you could try reading January’s story in the Hennessy New Irish Writing section of the Irish Times – one long sentence by Manus Boyle Tobin: The Drizzle on the Windscreen. I’m not sure how to say this, but I grudgingly admit that it works. And I rather like it!

Arresting Stuff

Rhiannon Cole - recent winner of Swansea University's award for the highest overall mark for a dissertation in Criminology.
Rhiannon Cole – recent winner of Swansea University’s award for the highest overall mark for a dissertation in Criminology.

So my daughter’s a criminal. No, no, that’s not right …. she’s a Criminologist.

Not quite the same thing, although she did once appear on TV’s Crimecall.  That was a few years ago when she was in Ireland’s version of the UK’s Crimewatch programme as a TV extra in a cold case story about a blonde, very pregnant missing person. Seeing my girl on national TV with a prosthetic baby bump was a bit unnerving, and it was a very sad story that still hasn’t been resolved (the Fiona Pender case).

My daughter’s interest in the dark side of life led to her move to Swansea to study for a Masters in Criminology and Criminal Justice. Not that there are many more baddies in Wales than anywhere else (so I’m reliably informed), but there was an excellent opportunity to study the genre at Swansea University. She’s just graduated and is now on the look-out for post that will enable her to demonstrate her specialist skills.

In the meantime, she’s been visiting me in here in Ireland and we’ve been doing more work on our psychological thriller, although it’s taking a tad longer to pull together than I’d hoped. We’re writing together as ‘Luri’ Cole (a combo of Rhiannon and Louise which we’re rather taken with).

But progress is a bit slow – not least because of the distractions. Rhiannon (she’d have to be half Welsh with such a name, eh?) has taken up genealogy. It’s fascinating stuff, especially since she’s found that she has, on her father’s side, a Welsh-speaking harpist forefather who was born just around the corner from where she now lives in Swansea.

We haven’t yet been able to confirm that this was the same Welsh harpist caught poaching rabbits on M’Lord’s estate in the mid-1800s, but it does look likely that the convicted felon is on that side of the family (on mine, all our ancestors are squeaky clean and virtuous, of course).

It sounds rather like the start of an exciting historical bodice-ripper, although we really need to get and finish our original joint-writing effort first.

Watch this space!

 

The Noise of Celebratory Glasses (and something of mine for you to read)

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Some of my anthology haul from the last 12 months or so*

Well, actually this is all about link, link rather than clink, clink, but I couldn’t resist.

If you’ve ever heard of me, you’ll know I write (mostly) poetry, flash fiction and short stories. So I thought I’d pull a few of my recent best bits together in one place.  Took me long enough – how could I expect anyone else to bother? So I wouldn’t blame you for never having sight of these pieces before…

So here are the links to a few samples of my writing (and you’re not allowed to comment that it’s all a bit so-so. So there.) So:

  • The one that started it all, my nomination for the Hennessy Literary Awards, a short story published in the Irish Independent: ‘Flying Lessons’
  • Third placed poem in Strokestown Poetry Festival’s Roscommon Poets’ Prize 2015: ‘Yellowbrick Road’, alongside (if you scroll down far enough on the same page) shortlisted poem ‘Softly, Softly’: Strokestown 2015

*Apologies for the awful photo quality; I’ve asked Santa for another camera. Not sure if he reads this blog. Watch this space…

Stockings, and the Filling Thereof…

cat-tales-anthologyIf you know someone who likes cats and short stories (always a good combo in my opinion) this anthology might be a good Christmas stocking filler. A paperback with illustrations and 21 stories (including one of mine, ‘Waifs and Strays’), the proceeds go to two charities – Cats Protection and the Against Malaria Foundation. ‘Cat Tales; An Anthology of Short Stories’ is available at Amazon:  Cat Tales

Or there’s ‘The 2016 Exeter Story Prize Collection: 21 New Stories’ which also includes a short, short story of mine, ‘Fitting In’ (which has nothing to do with cats!). These are stories and flash fiction from this year’s CreativeWritingMatters competitions, available on Amazon: 2016 Exeter Story Prize Collection

BTW – I’m not in it for the money on this occasion; I receive nothing from the sale of these books (I even had to PAY (gasp!) for my own copies). It’s all about me trying to raise my writing profile. Although I did get paid £50 for coming second in the Exeter Flash Fiction Competition with ‘Fitting In’  🙂

 

 

Making A Show of Myself

 

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On stage with the Hermits…

It’s kind of weird, but the older I get, the more ‘look at me’ I’m game for. Where on earth did that come from? Aren’t I the shy, retiring type? Well apparently, no I’m not!

When one of my poems was shortlisted for the Boyle Arts Festival Poetry Competition back in July 2013, I was too cowardly to read it to an audience and the judge, poet Geraldine Mills, did the deed.  It was an ambitious pantoum, ‘Blackout’, which needed careful delivery. Geraldine did a wonderful job, but I was left kicking myself for not getting up there to read it myself; poets have a hard enough time finding an audience, and right there had been a large one on a plate.

Fast forward to the New Roscommon Writing Awards in November 2014 when poet Jane Clarke (bless her!) chose two of my poems for the shortlist, and I was expected to read them out loud. I remember thinking that I just had to keep reading to the end and then sit down, which is exactly what I did. No-one died and no-one jeered, and I rather liked the rousing applause which followed.

My late father was a college lecturer, well used to an audience, and in his later life he used to give talks about beekeeping, Austin 7s and other wondrous things.  He advised me to speak up and then shut up, which was sound advice for when I used to give talks myself. (Healing crystals and their uses was one of my specialities, just in case you’re wondering.)

But talking about something you know about is a million miles away from sharing something you’ve written, something personal and intimate like a poem.

So I set about curing myself of the nerves involved in reciting self-penned poetry.

I turned up to the Word Corner Café  in the Dock Arts Centre in Carrick-on-Shannon and mumbled my way through a poem about my mother, and again, no-one died or jeered.  So I did it again, and then again. Eighteen months later, I’m now one of the stalwarts, attending every second Tuesday of the month to regale whoever turns up with some of my words, and often those of other writers, too.

We get through an eclectic mix of opinion, poetry, stories and songs and I’ve found it to be wonderfully liberating.  Sometimes the gathering is quite small, but no matter. We’re there again on December 13th 2016, from 6pm until 7.30pm, when anyone interested in words can come along and listen or take part. I intend airing another poem about my mother and paying tribute to Leonard Cohen.

hermits-dec-16The Hermit Collective, a band of writers, artists and musicians who put on pop-up shows in the west of Ireland, gave me a break too. They’re well used to my poems about my mother (‘Fur Coat and No Knickers’, which is now in the latest Crannóg Magazine, got its first public airing with the Hermits).

We’re out again next week, on Thursday, December 8th at 7pm in Tricky McGarrigles, O’Connel Street, Sligo. Its free – and a great evening’s entertainment is more than likely, both for the performers and the audience.

And I might even read a poem that’s not about my mother.