“If I’m a storyteller it’s because I listen…”
We’ve forgotten how and there’s no-one to teach us, John.
I’ll deal with isolationist technology first. Isolationist technology.
Science needs two decades off so we humans can catch up with what’s being thrown at us.
public reading, public speaking, public speaking at no-one, public talking over each other on the corner about the best artichokes, all manner of in-yer-face drama, obnoxious street art that speaks and we wish it didn’t, one-way small chat that clutters every mental cul-de-sac, explosions of ego, the desperate desire to be heard so as not to be the silent exception, nothing remembered minutes later. The congruence of unmediated noise, the congruence of mediated noise, the endless fretting under the majestical roof. The hoarse timpani of the unheard.
What about classes in public listening?
Recycling in Word, I came across this 15-year-old letter to the director of my stage-play, Pariah, which premiered in Saint Andrews in 2001. The play opens with executed criminals being interviewed Jerry Springer style and ends with the suicide of the protagonist, the son of a hangman. I’m posting it since it contains some thoughts on theatre, acting, and pacing that I firmly adhere to today. Perhaps for British theatre aficionados, it’s been a buzz, notwithstanding, for me to read it again. God I love theatre.
* * * *
A few thoughts for you. They are a little random, but of use, I hope. Take that which follows from one who has lots of British theatre experience, and not as a criticism of anything you have proposed for Pariah.
As I said, the theatre in this country holds different expectations that in the USA. Spectacle is the sought after commodity in American theatre: the immediacy of comedy takes its place over and above the script; visualisation is the key. We have to thank Andrew Lloyd Webber for our need to see TV when we are in a theatre. But theatre – to me at least – is never about the individual moments of high drama. It’s all about the low drama beforehand and after. They determine how high you’ll go.
That difference between Film and TV and Theatre is crucial. The theatre is a three dimensional, living space. Everything and everyone on stage is there to be seen, at all times. This is one of theatre’s great benefits: that a character can be built slowly, given that his every movement is scrutinised over two hours. The greatest physical comedy comes from the deftest of movements aligned with the timing of the lines
Pariah gives you the opportunity to create an entire world for the occupation of the audience’s minds. Every single thing on stage – inanimate or not – has a life; but a life that needs to be justified within the context of this fiction. The more the audience is made to reckon with the everyday, the more powerful becomes the surreality of the ultimate penalty. In a sense Pariah is about ordinary people faced with the ‘ordinary’ response of the law. The real, physical, high-dramas of their pasts – the crimes, the sentencing, the hanging – have already been played out. We now have the opportunity to see them as nobody has seen them before – as ordinary people. We often call serial killers monsters so as to distance ourselves – as humans – from the bestiality of our foes. But serial killers are human too: they drink tea, they fall in love, they queue up for buses, they can’t eat spaghetti properly. You get the idea. . .
I find that so much of the visual these days relies on the ordinary person in the extraordinary moment. Well in the case of Derek’s home life the reverse applies. Our pivots are living their lives as they know how: struggling to communicate, preferring silence to the activity required of the voice. But this is not to say that they live their lives as only they know how. This lack of mutual warmth – this positive frigidity – chills families in every village, in every town. . .ad nauseam. The relentless repetition of home life is a slow-tightening noose. Add to that the lack of any language with which to respond and you have death by suffocation.
Derek is an embodiment of dispassion. This does not mean that he lacks passion, rather that he is detached from the passion that surrounds him. The dreadful spiral of questions never answered is largely the work of Derek’s inability to leave his work at the office. His attitude towards execution is as mechanical as the bolts and rope with which he carries it out. He doesn’t suffer guilt for what he does; he just brings home all the mental cosmetics of the funereal. In other words, he is a miserable, incommunicative git, which cloak is also thrown over his wife and son. Chicken and potatoes: the culinary equivalent of Derek’s mind: dull, reticent, done with eyes closed.
Such a prop as the shirts on the ironing board will bring lots to Derek. How he can let them dangle given what he does for a day job? How he might rub the collars? And later, when he snaps the shirt taut at the journalist, should prove to be quite shuddering. But underplayed, always underplayed. The caress and not the punch. The subtlety will give real depth to the world that you are creating.
Pariah is set in the times indicated. The characters ages are worked around the year 1946, the year in which Melvin was born – correspondingly the year of the executions at Nuremberg. This is an important symbolic distinction: that Melvin should be dragged untimely from his mother’s womb at the very moment that a grand retribution is taking place against atrocity. I would be wary about enshrouding characters with 1990’s-style
Tropes. This will often lead to caricature, which will inevitably bore your audience. That is why I see no point in saying that we have a wonderful opportunity to do something entirely without precedent, and yet relying on the precedent of cliché – the leather jacket tough guy, for example – so as to nail down the point. What you have is a unique opportunity to show to an audience a side of great wickedness that is always overlooked, i.e. the side that is not wicked.
For the criminals to be believable they have to be individually balanced. They are a pretty tough lot, yet they should also be capable of reflecting frailties. That is why Ruth is shaping up so well already. We know that she was hanged because she shot to death her lover; but these are just facts. This is the ‘extraordinary’, if you like. What we need is fiction to provide the emotional concordance with the ‘real’ life (i.e. as lived before the crime) as well as life as a result of the punishment (and even, in Ruth’s case, life during the punishment). Ruth is certainly not guilty, but neither is she innocent. The Southern flirt (think Jerry Hall in The Graduate), the sense of need, the implacability of temper in a body in which the mind cannot revoke an immediate instruction: these are the ‘ordinary’ things to bear in mind when emotion sculpting. I’ll drop you a few notes on other characters as I see the opportunity.
The weight of silence hangs all over the play from the end of the Spiv Greenstreet show to the Vaudeville ending (that’s why these bookends work for me: they present the freedom to speak without constraint). There is a distinct claustrophobia (guess why!) that inhibits Derek, Melvin, Gertrude and Grimaux. For them, personal interaction is disjunctive, tangential. There is a stifling of emotion throughout these roles (which bursts when Grimaux is drunk and working the story about the Eiffel Tower etc.). What bonding there is is more of the manacle kind than of the sentimental. Derek’s dark clouds are pendulous. You need to work to produce that slow-throttling effect that comes to close down all exits (but don’t think Sartre: this is not about people searching for philosophical autonomy, but about people bound to external philosophical impositions. i.e. to live or to die).
Brief thoughts about Pinter on TV and how he informs my approach to writing. I’ll restrain from plot revelation since ‘The Collection’ in this ensemble is well worth an hour of your time
As we progress into e-worlds auto-governed by impersonal distance, the violence inherent in Pinter’s unsettling face-to-face directness from 1961 expands to acknowledge, even justify, our contemporary alienation. But then violence is everywhere online too. Pinter’s suspense from half a century ago is unbearable, like the silence when waiting for the reply to an urgent SMS.
This viewing brought to mind how Pinter has and will be a well for my writing. Helen Mirren’s near mannequin has exquisite syncopated timing; Malcolm McDowell’s ‘slum slug’ flicks a light-switch in an impossibly threatening way; Alan Bates’ supreme Pinteresque power through silence and unpredictability – “He told me once he’d been hypnotised by a cat. Wouldn’t go into further details…” – have all been revelatory to me, have stoked my output in terms of sudden swerves, the understated threat, a collision of rhythms. Pinter’s leftfield monologues – used invariably to confuse and disempower one’s interlocutor, are a kind of brief torture carried out on the silenced on stage or screen, while, perversely, a conundrum at the least, they are simultaneously hilarious for the viewer; customarily outstanding in wit, I can only attempt uneven imitation.
The demi-twist on the twist on the twist in the final five minutes of ‘The Collection’ is quality writing, Pinter to the bone. Power shifts, tennis style; masculinities impugned. The silent, screaming ambiguity at the conclusion is the stuff of Realism’s nightmares. All this I take away, stick it in the bank up top, defrost the Gutenberg iceberg and make stipe or tripe of what comes out on the keyboard.
Finally: Larry Olivier clearly didn’t get Pinter. He’s way too vocally expressive, keeps reaching for every line, old school. It probably didn’t help that he was 69 playing a 40-year-old. Here, then, are three enfants terribles alongside the National Theatre’s grandee as the ensemble’s fourth member. The clash of styles is palpable, instructive; I see the death of declamation and the hallmark of silent oppression.
Call and Response / Bark and Byte: The Writer on Mental Health
Here I record thoughts about my increasing interest in creative responses to mental health and the fragmented WWII poem that brought them to bitter-sweet discord in my head. Calling on epiphanies with William Styron and Keith Douglas, my writing timeline can claim moot expertise over only one of the three authors I discuss below.
I have suffered depressive episodes as long as I can remember. By episodes, I mean certain chunks of time when a canvas bag has been thrown over my head from behind. It is wet, pitch black and immobilising. Summer’s a bummer. By ‘as long as I can remember’, we could be talking yesterday. By ‘depressive’, I mean irrationally numb, overcome, there are many adjectives to employ and varied stresses to endure. Let me be clear at the beginning that I can only speak for my own.
In the mid 90’s, the time I began to write, I was diagnosed with depression and handed pills which sent me round the bend in straight-line-obsessed New York City. In truth, the symptoms had been in place for 40 years, though it took a move to NYC to see the pros in action and to understand, very publicly, that help was there if I wanted it. Prozac was its name and everyone was taking it. Everyone. You’ll never seen more serenity downtown on a Monday morning when the entire street’s popped an SSRI an hour before. Trouble is, as with every panacean myth, Prozac didn’t work across the board. I dropped it after two years but immediately began having panic attacks. Long story short, after the gamut of pharma-false-starts, I have become a Daniel I would not have recognised 20 years ago; “a Daniel, a second Daniel!” has emerged, systematised and progressive; a devilish trade off, no?
My focus in this piece, however, is not with the gilded profiteers in the outer ring of existence; may they dissolve painfully into their own capsules of toxic powder. Rather, having cited myself, it is to answer how a given mind responds, creatively, to the enforced, arbitrary distortions depression assures. To this extent, I’ll call upon William Styron’s experience of total instant breakdown, follow up with my own observations of affliction, conflict and resolution, and conclude with the poem from 1944 that brought everything together in my head (which is always necessary if everything is to fall apart.)
* * * * *
In 1985, the author of Sophie’s Choice, William Styron, visited Paris to receive the prestigious Prix Mondial Cino Del Duca. The night before the glittering presentation, Styron, recently dry after years of alcohol abuse, soothed by Halcion, had a depressive breakdown. An avalanche of self-loathing and worthlessness inundated a writer whose world inverted somewhere between awake and asleep, turning, in Milton’s words, Darkness Visible; in Styron’s “a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self—to the mediating intellect—as to verge close to being beyond description.” This, remember, the night before he was due to receive the highest of French esteem; menus were set, toasts were compulsory, speeches practised.
It is an old writer’s trick to describe something as being beyond description, then describing it with searing precision and irreducible scope. Virgil and Dante are masters. In Styron’s case, though, there is much to be said for his mental carve up. He is not a writer of legendary tragedies, nor accountable to the manipulation required in myth creation. Styron’s subsequent Darkness Visible is an incisive memoir of a public persona’s greatest fear, as presented publicly. An instant loss of vitality, a temporal disconnect, an abdication of personality triggered by a mystery trauma of severe magnitude; most damning of all, he bore the dark stigma that never reveals itself, that denies outright the possibility of normative associations and actions. Styron’s eloquent response presents the inherent absurdities of living a double-life:
“…in virtually any other serious sickness, a patient who felt similar devastation would by lying flat in bed, possibly sedated and hooked up to the tubes and wires of life-support systems, but at the very least in a posture of repose and in an isolated setting. His invalidism would be necessary, unquestioned and honorably attained. However, the sufferer from depression has no such option and therefore finds himself, like a walking casualty of war, thrust into the most intolerable social and family situations. There he must, despite the anguish devouring his brain, present a face approximating the one that is associated with ordinary events and companionship. He must try to utter small talk, and be responsive to questions, and knowingly nod and frown and, God help him, even smile. But it is a fierce trial attempting to speak a few simple words.”
The sense of separation from the self is palpable, the dualities required in daily contact, the indignation of being ‘abnormal’, beyond the call of medical duty. 30 years on we have come some way to addressing the destructive vagaries of the mind, but any trained psychologist will still tell you we know next to nothing about how it all clicks. Styron’s powerful archaeology of breakdown became a powerful stimulant to my awareness of mental diversities and creativity. ‘You never know what meds people are on,’ I always remind myself when dealing with a tricky customer. More to the point, Styron legitimised the seeming self-absorption of the mentalist Daniel, growing accustomed to the world as a site of plenitude, absence, hatred and comic absurdity.
* * * * *
As a writer, I have recently won a couple of prizes, read at a couple of cracking festivals, been published by better-known print magazines and have lots up and down the Web. 20 years of rejection then BOOM. I don’t really know how to name what I do, I leave categories to others. ‘Poetry’ is the most common word. But the problem with poetry is the word ‘Poetry.’ At heart, I feel like a lyricist whose rhythm precedes everything, a complex set-up no doubt engrained by too many ‘sit-still-and-listen to this boys, Alfred Noyes’ ‘The Highwayman’, with the 2nd form at posh Cambridge public schools,
“He’d a French cocked hat on his forehead, and a bunch of lace at his chin; / He’d a coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of fine doe-skin.”
I’d wear that.
one morning in May, I stepped into the shower a balanced man. 10 minutes later, not “walking wounded” but on my knees, I was cracked and weeping on the rubber mat. I cannot account for this on a second-by-second basis, the screen’s too fuzzy. There was simply a short-circuiting of neurons; a mass walk-out by the call centre staff. In their place came the sudden realisation that the world is only as horrific as those who populate it; ample for me to have an outage, it seems. I can’t say how much time I spent on the bathroom mat, nor what happened next. There was no time.
Only when, in a matter of hours, reality became tangible, could I spend the following day writing about it, in an intense trance, to get the poison out. Call and response. Bark and byte. The urgency to reach for the screen – my St Bernard with a nip keeping the inner chill at bay – exists to record with as much honestly the panoply of malefactions that have rolled through, not only the previous day for some continue to lag behind, obstinately, for years.
In this act, of recording, my low becomes my high. But if low cannot be trusted for obvious reasons, what makes high more honest? There is of course a fix at work here, a sleight-of-hand, because though I am finally writing of my own immobilising nemesis, rationality inevitably rises to bring order and reanimation. If I want to turn experience into a poem, that is. The writing speaks of hallucination where its setting on the page is anything but. There is a kind of fraudulence at work. Nothing genuine can be replicated; words destroy the masked actors.
My writing that increasingly incorporates mental health is, then, like all others, an attempt to explain the workings of a mind bound to arbitrary traumas. The pain is not permanent, but, when present, it is abundant. Like Rome records more annual rainfall than London. Because when it rains in Rome, the entire city sinks.
* * * * *
There is an ample lineage for depression and poetry. Type ‘famous poets who were depressed’ and Google takes 0.18 of a second to throw up Plath, Clare, Blake, Roethke, Poe, Sexton, Dickinson. (Note to self: dinner-party poem in there.) My discovery of Keith Douglas, however, was a game-changer. I knew of Churchill’s Black Dog, assumed it was all those cigars and all that brandy talking. 15 years ago on a rainy Scottish afternoon, I leafed through a British 2nd world war poet of immense talent, vision, empathy; an instant relief from what felt like the formalist Great War lamentations I’d been used to reading and would again come to teach. The final stanza of Douglas’ ‘Desert Flowers’ (1943) caught my eye and brings me closer to my purpose:
I see men as trees suffering
or confound the detail and the horizon.
Lay the coin on my tongue and I will sing
of what the others never set eyes on.
These are the external realities of war – Douglas described his work as extraspective – here there is death and confusion as spoken by the depressed observer and Truth-to-Power posthumous bard. A year on, close to death but clueless as to when, Douglas wrote Bête Noire – Black Dog – a work of incomplete fragments that shows, counter-culturally, in a fraught burst of unforeseen introspection, Douglas revealing his own manic depression. He famously called Bête Noire “the poem I can’t write; a protracted failure”; it remains in fragment form I reprint below. “My failure,” he went on, “is that I know so little about him, beyond his existence and the infinite patience and extent of his malignity.” Failure continued to bark at me too; like Douglas, I could not make tangible – could not even grasp – the debilitating shadows that at times engulfed me.
Having recently abandoned and then restored medication, I instantly engaged with a poet speaking of power-failure, speaking to me, powerfully. I record below what I read once and once alone (that afternoon) in St Andrews library. I won’t say it shattered me – that hands over victory to the darkness – but rather that it induced in me an empathy I have felt with no other single poem. The admission of an invasive, unknowable force coming unbidden to pervert the senses, to encircle the voice, and to lay its brute palimpsest over my shoulders and back; I might just as well have been sat next to a Keith in a bomb shelter, gas masks on, chatting about our condition.
Bête Noire, fragments (1944)
Yes, I too have a particular monster
a toad or worm curled in the belly
stirring, eating at times I cannot foretell, he
is the thing I can admit only once to
anyone, never to those who have not their own.
Never to those who are happy, whose easy language
I speak well, though with a stranger’s accent.
This is my particular monster. I know him;
he walks about inside me. I’m his house
and his landlord. He’s my evacuee
taking a respite from hell in me
he decorates his room of course
to remind him of home. He often talks of going –
such a persuasive gentleman he is
I believe him, I go out quite sure
that I’ll come back and find him gone
but does he go? Not him. No, he’s a one
who likes his joke, he won’t sit waiting for
me to come home, but comes
The Beast is a jailer
allows me out on parole.
brings me back by telepathy
is inside my mind
breaks into conversation with his own words,
speaking out of my mouth
can overthrow me in a moment
writes what I write, or edits it (censors it)
takes a dislike to my friends and sets me against them
can take away pleasure
is absent for long periods, is never expected when he
has several forms and disguises
makes enemies for me
can be overthrown by me, if I have help.
I have been trying to get help for about eleven years.
Three times I got help.
If this is a game, it’s past half time and the beast is
The trumpet man to take it away
Blows a hot break in a beautiful way
Ought to snap my fingers and tap my toes
But I sit at my table and nobody knows
I’ve got a beast on my back.
A medieval animal with a dog’s face
Notre Dames or Chartres is his proper place
But here he is in the Piccadilly
sneering at the hot musicians’ skill. He
is the beast on my back.
Suppose we dance, suppose we run away
into the street, or the underground
he’d come with us. It’s his day.
Don’t kiss me. Don’t put your arm round
and touch the beast on my back…
If at times my eyes are lenses
through which the brain explores
constellations of feeling
my ears yielding like swinging doors
admit princes to the corridors
into the mind, do not envy me.
I have a beast on my back [February-March 1944]
I don’t believe in unicorns or happy-ever-afters or gold from tiny redheads at the end of rainbows. I don’t believe in whatever it looks like it’s meant to be. I do believe in a poet under massive duress sent to die in a war he loathed. And I do believe in beasts that win. I relished in the strength of the man, his raw openness, the means of challenging omniscient, distortive voices in his head. “I have been trying to get help for about eleven years.” This in 1944. Imagine the stigma of mental health today and multiply by 71 years. Here was a poem to teach, I thought, no stranger to the notion of a mind kidnapped by itself; crucially, one whose auto-maleficence can be defeated, ‘if I have help’.
Douglas, however, refused to speak through me in any manner conducive to learning. Though I’d practised a couple of times, I could not publicly recite the poem the poet could not write. Not even half-hidden by a lectern. I was, after all, unleashing to a roomful of note-taking strangers my entire mental make-up. It was, in Styron’s words, “a storm of murk”. Epic fail, Virgil would say. Bête Noire didn’t – and has still not – come out again in public. But it’s everywhere in private; another epiphany, and not of sorts. I struggled for days over why I could only falter, blamed a lack of concentration and ability, joked about fragments, and stuck a dagger in my mind’s thigh, having after years finally held the mirror the right way up. Douglas didn’t have any similar opportunity to self-harm. He was blown to pieces during the Allied invasion of Normandy, aged 24, his remains originally buried in a rural hedge.
Even if not a formal didactic success, I have come to conclude Bête Noire is the poem that unlocked in me a means of communication hitherto inaccessible. Douglas helped me recognise, order and challenge my own mental health so as to let good people know there are black dogs everywhere that require constant monitoring. (Should it be “black dogs…who”?) For Styron’s part, he showed me the furthest-flung possibility of a writer’s despair, one that fortunately remains on the edge of my radar. In the last months I have become increasingly confident in public about my own hidden endurances, feeling the need to assure people that the professor they seem to like can also be afflicted by the things that may afflict them; that the guy up front can also find coping strategies and ways of making it through the day.
In response, I have had both friends and strangers share with me the hangovers misfortune guarantees; and I feel strong, not weak, as a result, as, is my wish, do those to whom I’ve spoken. I am not out to evangelise, to be known for ‘this and this alone’. Students and colleagues know well that is not the case. I seek instead to be comfortable and biographically instructive when talking in the classroom about invisible demons, such as suffered, for example, by my beloved Hamlet.
* * * * *
One morning in May my shower mat felt the full force of tragedy by way of a wet, leaping dog; so were Styron’s vulnerabilities set aflame in Paris. Douglas’ beast is not a common occurrence and, crucially, with great injustice, it never disappears with the same magic instantaneity by which it makes itself known. That pisses me off. My depression is mostly manageable on a daily basis. It only ever happens when I’m alone, which makes creative re-telling an even more fractious exercise. Indeed, the need to be with people, up front or otherwise, is integral to my self-esteem. Friends and colleagues see both a happy Daniel alongside the obvious consequences of my distress, but the cause is secure as the Buddha’s Tooth, mostly out of reach even to the sole guy charged with guarding it with his life. Like him, I can only do this stuff alone.
The artistic world continues to respond but response, never call, is the most the artistic world can do. Styron eloquently named and shamed his nemesis; Douglas too; post facto. As Auden knew, poetry changes nothing. Well, Master WH, here’s where I flip you 180 degrees. Had I not read Douglas and inferred an identical diagnosis, I might have remained a cipher unto myself. His poetry pushed me to align my mental states with my writing; he consecrated their co-existence. Poetry changed something. Not bombings or forced disappearances or tyrants puffing their cheeks. Against this madness, as individuals, we are powerless, mostly distant, definitely absent, even though the horror can be instantly localised and sneak into the shower. In service of the unique subjective mind, I celebrate the opportunities to submit to the flourishment of top quality journals turning their attention to the connection between mental health and creativity; just as I celebrate the small, community-based websites who for no profit have writers try to answer the same questions but on less glossy paper.
I do not know whether the true me is the one who performs daily or who comes home alone to exfoliate that same day onto the screen. I think about people who wear t-shirts with writing on them and it fills me with despair. The absurdity of it all. But then comes the nightly response. Creativity. The Shadow. The recognition that black dog, there he is, panting in the corner, can be overthrown, if I have help. Polarising imagery comes as automatic writing, rhythm and urgency and push are always in place in the orchestra pit of my stomach, the energy I have in my trance is unremitting. Just as time kills writing so writing kills time. As with Styron, my vulnerabilities become crudely exposed to no-one but me, the most terrifying moment of my life now spent alone. In this sense, the act of writing becomes death defying, an act of necessary re-animation, a summoning of the finest spirit to give the dog a biscuit or to remove the canvas bag.
Rumination, as promised in the website’s title …
Though roe by any other name would smell as briny, my grandfather wasn’t a fishsmith. Fishmongers don’t make fish. Writers don’t make words. We take them, arrange them, lay them out for consumption. There is no smithy; mongery is a bunch of ice racks to chill it on until someone passing likes a whiff or a set of dead scales sufficiently catches the evening light to merit a sale.
Dead scales metaphor. The reality is the poetry I share upon publication is often 12 – 18 months old; stuff that I’m nowhere near right now. That’s the process of submission / rejection / acceptance (so far, anything from 5 minutes to 18 months). It is an odd thing to show you in the moment where I was say 2 years ago; the relevance of it befuddles me. My Hamlet poem in the current Acumen was written 3 years back and was rejected by 28 lesser publications. Don’t look for logic here. I couldn’t write that piece now, it is a ghost of my current thinking, allegiances, foci.
* * * * *
2016 is a great year to date with twenty-three poems published in print and online. 2015 felt at times unbearably arid. The silence is as nothing I have ever experienced; the baby snatched from birth by unseen decision-makers who may or may not let me know in a year or so whether the baby stands on its own or, more likely, still not. This is my greatest mental struggle with writing. I don’t, as many fine poets do, labour for days over words. I write quickly, few drafts, for better or for worse. My strenuous labour is post-production emotional sabotage. I have singularly failed to come to a zen reckoning about the reams of work that remain virtually nothing while waiting their turn on the supposed golden path to the top of the inbox.
* * * * *
Asked at a recent reading at John Cabot University what we would advise young poets to read, my esteemed colleague, Aidan Fadden, reeled off a commendable list of historic and contemporary giants, because Aidan is a poet is the truest sense, a scholar of its provenances, a beautiful arranger of compactness, and a subtle intoner worthy of reverence. I suggested reading gardening manuals and Lego instructions.
This was not intended to be flippant. W.G. Sebald advised his students at UAE to do the same: to break free of ‘novelism’, read anything but novels. As a theatre scholar and practitioner, I prefer stage plays over poetry for the dialogue – I always find voice in quality stage dialogue – and the means of driving every line through with purpose. I’m not suggesting good poetry can’t manage these things, it’s rather that there is always something unexpected in stage dialogue, often through dialect or manner of speaking, or some other action occurring simultaneously, which is a rare find in poetry. In short, doing things as I do, away from the hated lectern, bouncy, irreverent, is, to anyone who has seen me, much more theatre than word on page.
* * * * *
I have a self-performed poem entitled ‘Letter to my son, re. black dog’ going up at ‘The Good Men Project’ on Sunday 24 July. I say tentatively that this is the biggest opportunity for me so far, given that their Fb readership is around 600,000. No better way than to damn it to a vacant hell.
As part of the National Theatre Live initiative – London-based stage performances transmitted in glossy 2-dimensions round the globe – today I watched Benedict Cumberbatch at the ‘Cinema Farnese’ in Rome, having blagged a Shakespeare prof-reduced ticket. I was genuinely delighted to be joined by 2 students from John Cabot University’s Lit Soc. Otherwise, for those who know me, imagine Daniel sitting on his own through ‘Hamlet’ with nobody to talk to.
Not being one who says ‘yum’ when hearing Benedict’s name, I was more in it for the play I love filmed in a theatre and up onto a fine wide screen. Living in China and Italy for the past 8 years, I have seen precious little UK productions. This is fine, because it helps my thinking resist trends, but it is also frustrating, because it is part of my lifeblood.
So, by measure of giving that blood a little pump down here in Rome, I share my thoughts below.
‘Daniel’s 17 top random in-no-particular-order thoughts on the Cumberbatch ‘Hamlet’, as viewed over three hours in a darkened cinema on a beautiful sunny Roman afternoon.’
1. Smart to start with Hamlet there on stage, otherwise the first 200 lines would be pointless to the yearnful recording it on their phones. No waiting until the 1.2 banquet scene to see Hamlet standing off to one side looking miserable. We have a star, it’s not the ghost, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch, here he is, listening to ‘Nature Boy’ – work it out yourself, then tell me – on the kind of record player I’ve owned.
2. Not surprising that to get people into the theatre to see a TV and film star you need to make a filmic play: the scope and richness of the set, the explosions, the sentimental music, Spielberg’s Ophelia surmounting a verge of ashes to die in the direction of the light which made me want to knife myself.
3. Claudius was more of a peacemaker than a villain. I like a bit more nasty in my nice. I didn’t feel much tension between him and Hamlet, primarily because of Hines’ laconic reactions. He wasn’t particularly sexy either, not a lot between him and Gertrude, except for one notable slo-mo snog during the first time-slowed-down soliloquy, ‘Too, too solid flesh…’
4. …which were a clever way of dealing with the necessary narrative dualities inherent in delivering soliloquies.
5. For me, there’s been Hamlet, Hamlet after my dad died, and Hamlet after I became a father. The fathers in this production were horrible fathers. I want tenderness from the ghost, the sense that he has lost a son; like the tactile Sam Shepherd’s in Michael Amlereyda’s Hamlet (2000).
6. I thought Nunnery was excellent, as good as I’ve seen. His toy soldier was also the shit, Victorian Duracell Bunny. Shame it was the only time Hamlet got to run the castle and it wasn’t a real one, but I was chortling nonetheless.
7. Likewise, ‘Rogue and Peasant Slave’. Quality. ‘To be…’ dragged on for me; for the first time, viewing star-laced pro theatre, it felt overlong, even when cut.
8. Cumberbatch’s performance as a whole was strong, his mind-quakes believable, a weepy Hamlet with a scratchily-nervous Ophelia, the awesome Calvin Klein ‘will he won’t he take his shirt off’ moment, some full-on shouting when Hamlet got back from England. He bossed it when he needed to but not overly. I never doubted he was a prince.
9. I liked how unfussy 5.2 was, death understated; no Olivier rolling down the staircase. Just get on and die.
10. Loved Gertrude’s delicate English maternal sweat-wiping of her boy during the swordfight. I’m laughing in recognition, which is the best thing to do with death round the corner. Anastasia Hill was really solid all round.
11. The ash explosion – again, upping the theatrical stakes for film goers, worked well for me in that it woke me up from my perennial 20-minute doze about 100 minutes into any Shakespeare play. I’m in a darkened room, there is soft light, and I have been lulled by metrical language. Like being 7 again, when I nodded off regularly under these conditions.
12. Horatio didn’t take his backpack off until Act 4. WTF? Plus zero empathic relationship with his mate. Dodgy tattoos as well.
13. I enjoyed how the acting troupe turned up as, well, you know, actors, unruly hair, lounging against the wall in odd-fitting leather jackets, hoodies and jeans. We know there’s no real glamour in this game.
14. My favourite was the curly-haired Rosencrantz. Great comedic timing, face. One man-show material.
15. I don’t know when it was filmed. Hamlet wore a Bowie T-Shirt, though I can’t say whether serendipitously or commemoratively. If the latter, and budget allowing, I now want to see him do it again in a Prince T-shirt.
16. In the dying embers of the play, I’d have had Young Fortinbras channel a lot more Christoph Waltz.
17. It was weird clapping in a cinema watching people clapping in a theatre. Did my head in.
I am bringing up to date the list of 2016 publications. I am having a good run of things so far this year, something to store up when response trends turn to winter. I have poems to come from Acumen, The Moth, Critical Survey, and a few others too, each of which fulfills me. I’m looking forward to sharing them with you.
I am still working hard sending out collections and pamphlets too. Every time I get a rejection, I immediately find somewhere else to send the work. It’s almost enough to keep me sane, as is your support, without which the work would remain in the black hole. Those of you knowledgeable of my work and who believe in me are awesome, affirming. I hope to attract more readers of course, perhaps with your help. You should always feel free to share my work around.
It’s a lonely life writing; madness that exists in a trance. Only writers know it; the stereotypes are absurd.
The following three short prose poems were published here at The Galway Review earlier this month. As seems to be my current experience with scoring publications, they are not the newest – written about 18 months back. The process is slow; understandably – though a big thumbs up to TGR for the speedy turnaround of these – because most of it done by faceless angels driven by the love of the love of poetry. Without them, nothing.
The reality is that you never get to see my recent stuff, the poems that excite me most right now. They too join the queue.
I’m still really pleased with how these 3 turned out though; their journey never really ends, even now they’re published I read them and think to tinker with what’s already online.
These are absurd times, folks, as is obvious, I hope, below.
‘Up and back with Charon’
From recent appearances things are weighted towards hatred, Charon concludes, up river alone, grimacing through the dripping stalactites to his daily sight of Earth’s surface, his turn-around, where he works the lines of dead-eyed young men clogging the sunlit quayside.
Passports annulled, he takes his €2 barge upkeep from each passenger’s tongue and sets his quarry upright aboard the rickety skiff which recedes gently at first through the gaping black arch and into the speechless river of night before the ferryman starts to rock the boat, rocks it till the statues tip and are gone, fearful as he’s become of punting haters into Acheron.
Relative to body mass your brain is a dinosaur’s which is why I have killed you and am observing it now. It really is a tiddler, easily the smallest I have ever held, only the amygdala is normal size, whereas your thalamus is a little baby’s fingernail, it looks so frail it needs nibbling off. Your cerebral cortex appears to have existed for thirty years as a single cross-sectioned slice. Your brain stem – and I apologise for my part in this – is pulped asparagus and how did anyone make it out of their mother with a frontal lobe like that? In fact the whole thing is like it’s been dug up after 3 million years in a peat bog.
As soon as I’ve formaldehyded it and washed my hands, I’ll get on to Frank at the Coney Island Freaks, Wonders and Human Curiosities attraction, tell him I’ve outshone myself this time and he can e-Bay the foetus of Bedelia the two-headed pig, the sand-filled snout of Lionel, the Lion-Headed Man, the body of the Tennessee Belle with the lower limbs of a dipygus twin sprouting from her pelvic area and what remains of Oesophageal Amanda who could deep-throat a scimitar without making a sound. These previous acquaintances are just so yesterday, so out-of-touch with what the modern family looks for in visual entertainment during coastal holidays. Here’s where your brain is a game changer. Frank might even open through winter this year.
‘The sensitive matter of farewell’
Rare though it is I get to speak at funerals, I do keep to hand updated eulogies for friends who are running headfirst to the door of the oven or straight down their hole in the ground. ‘Debunk Cliché’ is my motto which when put into action along with a few public speaking tricks-up-the-sleeve is likely to liberalise forever our attitudes to the sensitive matter of farewell.
Beginning at the lectern with deep laughter and a couple of asides pertaining to the heart attack and what really caused it, I cue up a song on the CD player whose lyrics reveal everything sordid. After this I read a glowing tribute to the departed from a serial killer on death row. I assuage the mourning family – who will perhaps be getting restless – with a slide show of their loved one with a recent haircut having sex with a youth perhaps older it’s a little grainy. Raising my hand, I conclude with a self-penned poem which touches on the themes of tax evasion, domestic violence, psychiatric sectioning, and Christian hope.
This will be followed by a pun intended mass free-for-all accompanied by a fretful organist during which the coffin will spill from the stand and the body of the now-gone will roll out dressed head-to-toe in white linen with the intense smile of inner heaven spread wide on his or her face.
Over my dead body
In death my hair is ruled back with a loving brush, lines
are lifted miraculously from my face which wears a look of lightness in
repose, neither of which I boast simultaneously floating the road to my
nonetheless set fair with a dandy clip and sprig in my lapel
I’m dropping in to catch the general feel of things; busier than I thought.
Thanks, son, for changing me into Ozwald Boateng’s 1999 deep-
now take the two coins away, let me assist with a
waft, watch my eyelids spring asunder, their focus intent on the beamed
ceiling, no trace of movement in the mouth – was that thunder? – repeat
the coins, the kids’ll love it
btw if this is someone’s idea of final rest, think again.
Dad’s soul went south, long overdue an eternity of forced creative
labour under careful distant watch.
Is that an erection in my trousers? Is that why half the town’s
turned up to say farewell one final time to my as-yet-it-seems-not-
completely-passed-over corpse? I must say it looks fine.
Of vital importance the dead remains: taxiderm me (sand from
Leigh-on-Sea), have me stand in perpetuity in one of Rome’s busier
piazzas, shrouded in Boateng, tourists’ll swear I never-as-much-as-
twitched and leave an abundance of straight-to-trust-fund coins which
will find their way to you,
There top end of the coffin, liking very much my
barefoot chic, scrubbing another tear away with your sleeve. I try to
touch your face, son, but I am no longer made of anything. I have only
come because you believe in me still like I told you to that day twelve
years ago when you asked me what you’ll do when I am gone.
Here’s the answer and I’ll be on my way:
take from this final supine view everything you want to smirk at for the
rest of your life, work it on to the grandchildren: the joke-shop eyes, the
absurd couture, the surprise in the trousers, the fact your financial future
is furled, secured (albeit with many trips to the piazza’s bank), the fact
the empty purple moleskine prank the lid slides over is currently lost in
song all the way to the underworld. That’s what you can do now I am
Ides of March, round the corner this afternoon, just found out about it today, a Roman historical society recreation of Caesar’s murder 2060 years ago, too good an opportunity. I take my Shakespeare class to the 5 o’clock show of the annual mock assassination above what was Teatro Pompei at Largo Argentina. A student asked whether this would be Shakespeare’s version of Julius Caesar and I said no, for then we would all have to go to The Forum, queue forever since faculty can’t breeze through with students any more, pay €15 to get in and once we are in there are no signposts for the Senate House or anywhere so nobody would know where to go and we might just get upset. Instead, we are going to the actual location of Caesar’s assassination which is much more accessible and known throughout the city as a top quality cat sanctuary where hundreds of them do fuck all all day among the ruins.
Crossing Ponte Garibaldi we have a quick chat about Brutus and Shakespeare’s development of inner psychology, about the advent in his work of a character’s deliberation on and evaluation of a future trauma. Brutus is a prototype of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s next to die before his time. That and the fact that if you are going to knock off Julius Caesar, king of the unfree pre-Christian world, you’d better have a plan for what to do after (which seems to appeal to a couple of marketing majors taking their lit requirement).
We arrive into a crowd staring at a bunch of old boys dressed up as senators, they’ve done this for years, all the gear thanks to a local theatre, smatterings of skin-toned powder, quick check of the sandals, quick cigarette before the show begins in which they’ll re-enact that fatal morning for the god of absolutely fucking everything in 44BC. Lead by praetors and mean-looking centurions with Shakira tattoos and watches, the holy togad sweep in and out of a theatrical square 30’ by 30’ on the west side of the ruins, bang in front of the tablecloth, bed sheet and curtain emporium.
They put on a 30-minute show with a narrator for Suetonius and Plutarch’s narratives, and Shakespeare-as-performed for: Caesar’s murder; Brutus first up in front of the crowd (I have no problem referring to this as a truly epic fail); and Mark Anthony kicking Brutus’ absent ass all over town. None of which I could manage to photograph without blindly raising my phone-cum-camera above my head which I am not prepared to do in the service of culture.
Notwithstanding the several papier-mache columns held still by chunky men dressed as gladiators, many phones-cum-cameras were however raised high above our heads to record something to show the folks after dinner. There were TV cameras there too so we could just, like, watch the real thing and catch up later on Youtube, but let’s not stray into the viewing habits of generation whatever we are.
Determined that this should not be a male-dominated event, lots of Roman ladies dressed as Calpurnias and Portias – tresses and dresses, expensive neckwear, the full bella figura, the real powers behind the throne – join in the general post-stabbing clamour. While their attendance remains historically undocumented they do bring a certain sense of horror and revolt at the brutal murder of their husband and leader in a manner seemingly unavailable to their male counterparts the ageing-rocker-in-toga senators.
Between scenes I have a chat with Catone – Cato – about what he is doing there having died two years prior, in 46BC. He replies that Cato’s presence bolsters the integrity of the event given the immense respect held for him by the Roman senators of the period. He’d been asked 3 years ago by his friend Giuseppe who owed him a favour and who is Brutus and therefore has some sway. And yes, he knows he is technically dead.
The assassination of Caesar comes as a big disappointment, four rows back as I am, on tiptoe, hoping for a least a fountain of spouty gore; surely they’ll bust out the blood bags if they’ve gone to all this effort. Nihil. Niente. Et tu, Brute passes stainlessly but then the plastic daggers they thrust around are a joke and are available in the younger person’s section of Tiger for €3.00 each.
In terms of quality, from evil yet tremulous senators gathering early doors to Mark Anthony on the podium, the old fellas put on a good show with lots of big gestures, furtive glances and all-round anticipation of one another’s lines. In terms of Shakespeare’s enduring reach in his 400th death centenary and given that he scripted half of what we saw, the students were introduced to Shakespeare appropriated into local taste, rather like MacDonald’s selling wanton burgers in China.
I explain that there is very little street theatre in Rome beyond people dressed as the Statue of Liberty who don’t move much. Here, instead, is a random outdoor audience of 500 or so forming a square perimeter five or 6 rows deep with plenty of standard Roman bustle, TV cameras and people looking knowledgeable, cigarette smoke bombs everywhere, folk shoving through to get a better view or at least to not have to stand behind me which is fair enough.
It is, all in, peculiarly local even 2060 years on and happens, for my class, entirely out of the blue. I was thinking of hitting them with 1.1 of Hamlet which takes place on a freezing night in the Danish pitch black with soldiers who are edgy to say the least. Instead, we get warm afternoon sunshine, gold Roman light, and a bunch of bons vivants, friends for years, some come with their wives to Caesar’s death-place dressed as soldierly extras with cracking lion-head gear and polished chest plates, bossing the piazza but at least not charging €50 for photographs, while others slip on the sashes and sandals for their yearly Ides, March 15, petitions in hand, smiles on their treacherous faces, Tiger daggers tucked away inside well-folded robes.
And finally there is the light on the Tiber as we return to campus.