10 November 2008

Writing Journal, Day seven

Final entry then, and I've just made the late deadline. This time it actually involves some creative writing! Apologies to Beverley, I know my blog's been quite patchy...

I wrote some haikus on the bus, and while I like the idea of minimalism, it felt too claustrophobic. I can't flow with my writing like the way it used to happen. While one of my favourite poems is Ezra Pound's ultra-short "In a Station of the Metro", I think it requires a hell of a lot of skill to actually pull this kind of thing off. So 17 awkward syllables, with phrases crowbarred into tight spots, provides the basis of my Haikus. Having said that, I liked the fact that it's impossible to ramble, and I could just sum up one thought. So I came up with three that I liked; here's my favourite:

Haiku for a Bus Driver
Pavements scroll. I pose,
Aloft. Each streetlight is fixed.
Brakes bring new faces.

I'm trying to figure out how to go about editing this. It's far too short to start finding synonyms or to try and flip the syntax around. In fact, I'd quite like people to be more harsh when criticising me, telling me which bits need editing, and how they'd edit it. Which I absolutely hate doing myself, but still, it's important to have honest feedback. I handed in my Personal Statement for UCAS to some teachers today, and painfully realised how horrible some of the bits sounded. The Personal Statement is a new form of self-portrait, written exclusively by 17-year olds, in under 4000 characters. Every Personal Statement is an absolute work of art, but at times it sounds like I've not taken it at all seriously, and at times it sounds so overwrought. Maybe I can channel that kind of feedback into editing my poetry.

With longer poems, sometimes I just write a page full of nonsense, then attack it with crossings-out, then completely rewrite it, and this is the editing process. It made me wonder what would happen if I tried to write the same poem on three different days, forgetting the results each time. I've tried that before, but never really had my heart in writing what is ostensibly the same thing over again. Especially what with my current block of flow.

Also, I was supposed to be having a poem published in my school 'zine today, but due to lack of material, publication seems to be being postponed indefinitely. So I'm going to dump it here!

I wrote it about my Duke of Edinburgh gold expedition, which was basically four days of hiking and wild-camping in the highlands of Scotland. It grossly over-exaggerates the relatively bearable weather conditions, and you should bear in mind that I had a heck of a lot of fun on this expedition! I wanted to write something really grandiose, as we've been studying Paradise Lost in English. I've also been messing round with rhyme and sonnet structure, which is fun. But Katie seemed a bit scared by it. I think it's pretty epic!

Aloft atop titanic Scottish peaks
that plunged us into unforgiving mist,
Dwarfing our humble, heaving bodies blist-
ering with throbbing footsteps sunken deep
between the mossy giant's shoulder blades,
his stagnant marsh ubiquitous. He sweeps
his snow-capped clansmen 'cross the weathered trails,
Beside the tranquil streams and hazy glades.
Even nature's formidable displays
of ceaseless rainstorms, cliffs, and stony gales
deterred us not from this ambitious feat,
For through such gripping cold and smothering heat
we fought, with proud and aching footsteps strugg-
ling onwards till our journey was complete.

I just realised that I accidentally wrote a haiku without realising it. I didn't even edit this.

Haiku for Haikus
Seventeen awkward
syllables, with phrases crow-
barred into tight spots.

Maybe my flow is coming back! Or maybe I just pushed the limits of meta-humour. I wouldn't blame you if you groaned at that effort.

How do you make a living from writing?

I'm still quite naive when it comes to money. I have a lot to learn, as I have no idea what kind of money is involved in writing, and I scarcely have a concept of the costs of living... I'd love to have writing on the side, alongside a more feasible job. Like a column. How cool would that be? It would be like this blog, except I'd get paid, and I'd have to be coherent and concise. This is where problems arise. I really have no idea how people get involved in writing.

I think my dream writing position would be a Pitchfork Media reviewer. Unfortunately, many people agree with me, and so their reviewers don't actually get paid. It's enough of a reward to get the free music, I suppose. By this rationale, it seems far easier to get a writing career with something that does feel like work. Unless you're very lucky. But as I've said before, I'm more than happy to shelve my writings, and share things with friends.

Thanks for reading my journal! Perhaps this will lead to a new dawn of Message Sent activity...

09 November 2008

Writing Journal, Day six

I finally have time to write some stuff! It's been a bit hectic.

How do you find out about what's happening in the writing world and what do you think we can do to improve information for young people?

SYW is quite informative of spoken word stuff in Sheffield, and we have Off The Shelf too which is a great thing for writers to have. Other than that kind of thing, I'm not entirely sure what "the writing world" constitutes. I heard about SYW from Olivia and Priscilla, at the beginning of my time at King Ted's, and I thought Off The Shelf was pretty well-publicised around Sheffield. Everything else came through SYW.

Words Aloud has been fantastic, although it's the last one on November 25th! I've got to find something memorable to read out to mark the last evening. It will be quite sentimental actually.

I really hope I can find similar stuff when I head off to uni soon... It hangs on what kind of circle of friends I fall into... It's probably going to be fine, but it's still a bit scary. It is really hard to find out about new stuff like this, so I need other people with the same interests. But we're living in the information age... Facebook is the really the only real-life networking I need; I get invited to gigs, parties and performances through my friends and groups quite frequently, which is brilliant. I'd say it's the best way to involve young writers, as the internet is becoming increasingly ubiquitous, and things will still be spread by word of mouth.

07 November 2008

Writing Journal, Day five

So I'm a bit behind, inevitably, since I have had practically no time to write anything today (and probably won't tomorrow either), so I'm now hurriedly finishing off yesterday's (now the day after yesterday's) journal. I knew this would happen. It's annoying now though, because I already know what my follow-up is going to involve... sigh.

So today, Wednesday November 5 (shush), I did something I've not done in a long time. It sounds immature for me to talk about this, but hopefully you'll see where I'm going at the end. I thought I'd got over episodes off sudden insecurity, but today I reminded myself of what I used to be like by making a completely incomprehensible noise at a girl in the queue for the bus. Well, not just out of nowhere. Literally nonsense, though. She'd asked me something I didn't hear because I had the Mars Volta blasting in one ear, but it was obvious she was asking me if I wanted to go before her. So my reply should not, of all things, have been "Shurenumbfm". And yes, I remember the sound. Ugh.

I like the fact that I can be more expressive through text. I once went to the Botanical Gardens with Olivia to be interviewed about poetry in Sheffield, with Seb, who's a really nice guy, who's now in a relationship with Olivia. So I was obviously a real third wheel back then, and I got in front of the camera and completely lost it. I could barely string a sentence together, for some reason. We found it funny afterwards, but it just shows how bad I am at spontaneity, and I just don't understand people who can just talk for hours! I like being able to go back and cross things out and delete them all the time. Self-correction is quite satisfying, but you can't really do it in real life.

And I like that while you only really have one way of talking conversationally, writing can be prose, poetry, journalism, etc. At SYW we've done postcards, scenes from plays, and I still have a page full of an onomatopoeic transcription of the noise of a time machine. Today, we began a project on just expanding a character, and having a realistic, complex character who you know inside-out. Allan is based on myself, or kind of a midway between myself and a close friend. As well as a character I dreamt up for what may have turned into a novel at one point, but who was a lot different because he was going to have lived in a world like a constant lucid dream. I love having new ways of thinking about the world, and through a new character, one who I would hold a lot of respect for, I think I'm going to have fun developing Allan. =)

The novel idea never really got off the ground, though. I'm rooted in poetry; I just enjoy it more, and feel satisfied when I stop myself from rambling. It can be somewhat daring, presenting imagery that may be misleading or suggestive, and hoping the reader doesn't just hear all the negative parts of the poem. Obviously I'm the person who has most insight into the poem, and sometimes I feel like my stuff doesn't have the right impact, but I also like the idea of constructing poetry to result in multiple interpretations.

The creation of beauty is less exact in prose, but sometimes I favour it, for instance, recently I've just been jotting down stuff that's happened to me, that felt like it was laden with imagery. I feel like Erasherhead sometimes, walking round town with weird stuff going on in the background which sometimes doesn't seem to make a lot of sense, but at the same time must be symbolic... So I've tried to write down these symbols and derive some sort of meaning out of them by the time I've finished writing. I probably won't show these to anyone because a lot of them bring out a side of me I'm reluctant to display. I do the same in poetry, but I don't know if people pick up on it, and if they do, they're not as inclined to accept that it's true. I shroud my poetry in ambiguity, and I hope that different people see the sides of my writing that are relevant to them. It's harder to be ambiguous with prose, which I suppose is why novels are more popular than poems.

I'm getting quite annoyed at myself over being conversationally ineloquent, though. I think partly because Bethan's voice is so beautiful. I stumble over words so much, and slur my speech like I'm drunk. (Apparently it's terrible when I actually am drunk.) I think it's because I prefer writing, so I always want to go back and rephrase things, and start over, while I'm supposed to be having a conversation with someone. Okay, I'm barely a stuttering wreck, but I feel that it's something which has impeded me socially. Sometimes my friends phone for advice, and I find myself apologising for my lack of support. Yesterday, Michael was giving me meta-commentary about the way I was comforting him, which was actually quite funny.

And quite often conversation is quite banal... I love the stuff I talk about with my friends, though. Quite often, the most uninteresting conversation turns into a semi-philosophical discussion, which is really rad. It sounds quite pretentious of me, really. But I think that that's something I have to forget about when writing about this stuff in poetry.

And yet, when I'm trying to sum up thoughts as big as skies, I'm always going back to something I wouldn't admit to thinking twice about... Like earlier... I mean, it would have to be a girl, wouldn't it? This was actually exactly what I picked out about Allan, when I named one of his most confusing contradictions, in his continuous obsession over other human beings, and things that he would say hardly matter. I described it as an artistic pretense. I think both me and Allan would admit to overthinking trivialities. Allan's obsession over another human is not an emotion he would say made sense. And today's incident was something I should have forgotten about by now. I know you've guessed that I thought she was incredibly pretty. On the bus, she was reading a book for a social psychology course, and I realised that I must have freaked her out a bit, and wondered if she was analysing it and working out what was up with me. Not that it would have been wise to apologise for my incoherence. And of course it doesn't matter, because I'm never going to see her again.

05 November 2008

Writing Journal, Day four

I'm a bit caught up in the US election tonight... Radio 4 is on, and I'm clicking obsessively around the Guardian website, and yelling about every flicker of activity amongst a load of Americans over IRC. Not exactly something I'd ever feel poetic about, but I like the way everything's kind of fallen around it. School is cancelled tomorrow, as the heating has broken, and I'm seriously considering pulling an all-nighter for this - I know it's a cliché, but it's history...

Anyway, I'm really enjoying blogging this journal. I used to hate the idea of getting into a rhythm of things, and I don't think I've ever managed to compel myself to writing in a diary past February, but I've actually written four sizeable days' worth of writing.

Still, I don't think I'd ever be able to seriously do writing professionally. I'm terrible with deadlines, absolutely dreadful. My writers' block would make me an impoverished wreck. It would be fun, I suppose, but I'd definitely never go in for creative writing, and probably not journalism. Although I was seriously considering a degree in it at one point. With 3 years of English on the cards, I'm not exactly set on any career paths.

I probably shouldn't feel so weird about the idea of doing work that I would actually enjoy, but there is something inherently unnatural about that. I guess I decided to work on something more realistic, and thereby postponed all ideas for job opportunities. Which is what most people do! I'm really looking forward to doing English, though. I want university to be the best 3 years of my life, and I'm sure it will be. I think writing will definitely be part of that, and yes, I can enjoy it. I'm sure work just detracts from anything you enjoy, so I can only come to the conclusion that it's all good. :)

04 November 2008

Writing Journal, Day three

(Late again...)

Have teachers helped or hindered you as a writer?

I always enjoyed doing those creative writing bits in the SATs. Before school got all serious. I think that was an excuse to just get creative for once without getting derided. I once was asked to write about the view from my window, but decided that that was boring, and instead wrote about the view from some crazy alien's spaceship at the edge of the universe. I must have just read the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy series, and I loved that kind of hyperimaginative writing. Adams' ability to just think up crazy alien cultures and inventions is the kind of thing I think the SATs were all about. He clearly loved his writing to bits, had a lot of fun with it, and I think for a while I wanted to be a writer - without actually writing very much. I was about 12 at the time, I suppose. I still have a ~30 page word document entitled "WAR OF THE PI", which was about an incredible fat alien (called P%rk) eating a pie that perpetuates youth, and the adventures of the bizarre aliens trying to rescue the magical custard from P%rk's stomach before it was digested.

I've only shown WAR OF THE PI to one other person, and while he seemed quite enthusiastic, I don't think he actually got past the first page. My hyperactive ramblings which I handed in for the creative description tasks were never particularly well-received, as I always tended to break the boundaries I'd been set, and add some sort of action to the scene. This was my way of telling everyone that there is nothing more boring in literature than a description of something stationary. Yet that seems to have been the only creative writing we were asked to do at school...

I can't remember if I was any good with imagery back then. It's become the focus of my writing these days. Beverly's post today mentioned Sylvia Plath, who is probably my favourite writer ever, just because she uses imagery in a way that could kind of be described as hyperimaginative. Plath's poetry is never straightforward. It requires a lot of imagination to get to grips with: every similie is a long shot, and there's so many connotations carried by every word. Her writing is so dense, and very rewarding. I'm flipping through Ariel right now, and just flicking straight through poems like Lesbos, you can just tell that it somehow sounds so depraved, without necessarily taking everything in. I prefer her earlier poems in terms of meaning, simply because I understand them (mostly), and the Bell Jar is terribly beautiful; but in terms of language, Ariel is her masterpiece.

I guess some of my poems (Major, for instance, which I posted to Message Sent a month or two ago), are directly influenced by Plath. In retrospect I think the poem I did for Olivia (which I finished today) sort of uses that style, too. Free verse, at least. Thanks to my teachers, I never thought poems had to rhyme. I found out enough about literature I guess, but I still felt more inclined towards journalism rather than poetry or prose. I never actually felt compelled to read poetry until I was 16, which isn't that long ago!

You can blame my friends for this exposure to art. At my old school, nobody would have dared to express themselves artfully, (apart from the odd rock band, I suppose). When I moved to my 6th form, I met my friends, and I now feel like I'm part of some bohemian subculture of Sheffield, which is pretty rad! And I love literature so much now that I'm dead set on studying it at university.

Friends are always going to have far much more influence on people than teachers, of course. I think my current teachers are pretty awesome, actually, but of course it's my friends who join in and support my writing. And I have far more freedom than ever before, because I'm friends with the most open-minded people I've ever met. Open-mindedness is, in my opinion, the strongest virtue, and while I previously wanted to be a journalist, people assumed I'd be telling lies about celebrities in the Daily Mail, now I'm a writer, and that can mean whatever the hell I want it to mean.

03 November 2008

Writing Journal, Day two

Today's (well, yesterday's) journal is late because my internet died.

I managed to write the poem for Olivia today, I can never decide if my poems are any good till a couple of days after I've written them, but hopefully she will appreciate the gesture. :)

My creativity was somewhat hampered by the culmination of a half-term full of procrastination, so I spent a long time doing, (or trying to do), english and maths homework, and I even shunned that in favour of violin for most of the day. It's been one of those days where I can barely tell where all my time went. All I know is I feel tired now, and it's become dark outside. Not exactly a creative environment.

I wish I lived closer to town, or just next to Broomhill like most of my friends do, so I could just wander off into town for a few hours and sit in Remo's with a notepad and a fountain pen. Possibly a beret, Lennon-esque shades, and a stripy jumper. And I could grow a Dali moustache.....

What time do you like to write at? Do you write every day or once in a blue moon?

I usually write on the bus, at the end of my day, but rarely in the evening. Or wandering round the Winter Gardens, or a park, waiting in between school and orchestra, or something. I can hardly ever write about something that isn't connected to my day. It's not something I force myself to do... I easily wrote every day at one point, but somehow I don't think simply sitting and looking poetic actually generates creativity. I still try to make myself write, and I guess it gives me a good sense of well-being if I do write anything I like, but to stare at a blank page is one of the most frustrating activities in the world. It's happened a lot recently.

I just need new types of inspiration. I want to start writing one day, and wonder how my style has so suddenly changed. I've been listening to the new Los Campesinos! album a lot today, (it's amazing by the way), and the songwriting on it is just crazy. Written down in the lyrics zine, it's the kind of thing you could never imagine being set to music, because it's so dense, it's practically prose. I wish I could write poetry in this kind of conversational tone. It's that style of writing that doesn't seem hyperemotional, but it's so emotionally charged. In "It's Never That Easy Though, Is It?", they basically describe the most horrible thing that could happen to anyone ever:

"As if I walked into the room to see my ex-girlfriend
(who by the way I'm still in love with)
sucking the face of some pretty boy, with my favourite band's
most popular song
in the background."

But nothing I write ever goes anything like this. Nothing creative, at any rate, because I don't really see blogs as creative writing. Not that I don't make an effort, I do, but this actually is a conversational tone: when I've tried to blog about my insecurities or whatever, it's just been the sort of thing I'd say to someone over the phone if I had half an hour to plan everything I wanted to say. In poetry, though, I'm way too obsessed with finding imagery for things, so it barely even sounds real any more. I think one of the things I said that I wanted to get out of SYW was to just nail a writing style, and know what the hell I sound like when I write. I'd love it if someone read something of mine, anonymously, and think "Oh yeah, that's Stephen." But I also want to break out of whatever it is that is my writing style. Just making the same thing over and over again is boring.

Hmm... I contradict myself too much, but at the same time, I don't really, because it all makes sense to me.

01 November 2008

Writing Journal, Day one

Hello, for the next seven days I am (fingers crossed) going to be keeping a journal of what I've written, and stuff related to writing, to help out the Yorkshire Young Writers' team. :) Here is a description of my task... http://yorkshireyoungwriters.blogspot.com/2008/10/journalling-week.html

Recently I've been suffering from a bit of writers' block. I did intend to write today, as I thought I'd have an hour or so in between hanging around with a friend and meeting my girlfriend. But practically as soon as I sat down, Bethan turned up...

It's not that I've not had the ideas to write about... just transferring that artful picture, an idea I want to capture in a poem, into actual words, has proved hard recently. I always used to get ideas in the form of words, I used to hang over a phrase I wanted to use, and just go from there. It's not happened like that for a long time. I can write when I force myself to, but I've barely written anything I feel like expanding upon in months.

I wanted to write something for Olivia's birthday, because she's probably the only reason I carried on with writing in the first place. And I need something to write for my school newspaper which is due to print on Wednesday, I think? It's really not coming, though.

But I figured, today, that maybe that creative conduit between the mind and art is beginning to rebuild. I had a really surreal day today, so much so that this day in itself could even be something I'd want to write about. I was getting flickers of phrases instead of just vague feelings. I'm sure true poets live their lives afloat a stream of gushing stanzas, but at least I'm trying.

Do you find writing in a group setting inspiring or do you prefer to write alone?

Or maybe it's because I've not been to Sheffield Young Writers properly, in a while. I've not read my friends' writing in ages; it's definitely good to share ideas... and while I always find my SYW work more restrained, I can almost always write at least something...

I should really get into the habit of writing things down as soon as I think them. I'm sure I forget so much stuff, because I don't do this. ST Coleridge began Kubla Khan after a psychedelic dream, waking and writing down all that he could of this bizarre vision, until he was interrupted by a knock at his door, and the dream's details floated away. I briefly wondered if I'd write brilliantly if I wrote everything down as soon as it popped into my head, and decided that it would probably be better writing if I did, but perhaps I shouldn't quite compare myself with Coleridge just yet...

24 August 2008

I really hope other people do this

I replaced the downstairs mirror in the hall above the shoe rack with one-way glass, and placed a spycam in a scraped-out hollow in the plaster. I'd been making faces at myself in the mirror again and was wondering whether or not it was just me. I hoovered up the plaster-dust that had fallen into my dad's walking boots and spent a few moments nudging the mirror, squinting, and wondering if it was straight, then began the recording, carefully lowering the mirror. I smoothed the hair out of my face, then I repeated the squinting at myself, looking slightly downwards at a patch in the middle-bottom of the mirror, tensing jaw muscles and wondering whether or not it would look different when I replayed it on the spycam. I squinted like I do on a sunny day and I've forgotten sunglasses, frowning more and more as I looked increasingly unapproachable. I widened my eyes dramatically, opened my mouth, inspected my tongue for that gunk you get if there's no mouthwash in (there's never any mouthwash in), then tried to maintain a neutral, walking-down-the-street expression. I smiled the smile that marks my favourite song shuffling onto my earphones and wondered what that pretty stranger thinks as he or she sees me glance at his or her face in some creepy, subconscious attempt at eye contact, that I guess I always stifle. I tried to look at myself sideways. Eventually I stepped away, the mirror cut me off as I climbed the first step - then I leaned back, ducking my face under the mirror, and checked that the spycam was still there.

Exactly one week later, the house was empty again, and the external hard-drive to which the spycam was transmitting had run out of memory about two and a half days ago. I pulled back the mirror, briefly brushing a thin lock of over-curled hair from my left - right - eye, and took the black box from out of the wall. It took over an hour for the .avi file to sort itself out, so I guess the computer can do things a hundred times as fast as I can. But I can fast-forward.

And it went a bit loopy, and froze up, when I tried to play the huge file. I impatiently dragged and clicked the hell out of everything on the screen, watching the windows go all white and fill with imprints of the stuff I dragged over them. But eventually the first pictures jerked into the frame, the vandalised interfaces springing awake angry and confused like they were sleeping drunks, and I'd drawn cocks and swearwords all over them. I saw the back of the one-way glass at forty-five degrees, shifting about until I'd got the camera in place. Soon the glass merged down into the clarity of my hallway, and my unbrushed hair popped up into the frame. I instinctively pawed my forehead, and watched my week-younger self follow suit, brushing dopey strands from between his eyes. He was looking slightly above the lens at first, but it kept shifting, as he mostly looked himself in the eye, then looked back down to the reflection of some indistinct point on his blank grey T-shirt. I watched him scare me with his ugly leering faces, pausing the video periodically and trying to remember what had gone through my head. The most striking bit was the image of me squinting. I looked almost thuggish. I leaned back and my thoughts twisted round, picturing myself smiling and squinting, cross-legged on a rug on the grass, wearing a jumper in the sun, and spouting that one awkward phrase to her again and again...

So after about half an hour, I made a final couple of clicks, then heaved myself out of the swivel chair, and sprawled myself out on my bed, staring at my ceiling, my tiny, smudged hand-mirror reflecting every spot of my face, and I was reliving that conversation I should never have spoken in. The computer was struggling to delete the hundred hours of the mirror's viewpoint, of which I'd only viewed the first five minutes.

30 July 2008


Major is, in my opinion, the best poem I've ever written. It's the only thing I've written where I feel I've created some form of empathic depiction of what I was feeling. In this case it was when I was walking through the crematorium gardens shortly before my close friend's mother's funeral. I performed it live on the radio in June this year.

Willows stroll thoughtfully over

Ash-leaved fluffed island grasses

Placid wanderways roll

Nameplated edges through

Nameplated dust.

I sigh, and wonder what to think.

Plastic flowers drape protectively over dead names

So the names can kneel

And smell plastic memories

The thud as they landed by the names

Was an ash kiss.

From obligingly stolen neighbour’s garden flowers…

To gaudy, heartshaped melodrama flowers!

Telling, and insufficient.

I sigh, and wonder what to think.

How many of these names could I love?

I loved none but those who step

Without gushing tears

But with brewing pensive sighs

That they leave uncast and dry.

“I think…”

And breathe a wave of air with them –

And –

I treasure silence.

I sigh, and think these helpless thoughts –

Each time each name was read

How far it is around each path

Each body or fragment of ash.

And when my thoughts are in cinders

Their twisted poetry

Will crush my name to powder.

“We’re all dying”.

“We’re dying in the major key”.

Writing and me

As blogs go, Message Sent is probably the most inconsistent one in the world, and as such I'm probably going to disappoint you all by not updating for months after this post. It's not that I don't feel like writing, it's that the stuff I do write ends up elsewhere.

Message Sent has always been an outlet for my writing of any form, but since I started King Edwards, my writing, (bar those two rabbit-in-the-headlights posts from the beginning of my school year), hasn't been written with my blog in mind at all. I got really into poetry last summer, so I guess I've been writing poems for near enough one year. I turned to poetry to vent emotion, while my other journalistic work ended up in my school magazine, the ingeniously-titled "KeVIIn" (King Edward VII newspaper). I've written quite a few record reviews in there, got a few poems published, as well as a couple of articles on my general interests- lucid dreaming and webcomics. Writing with my friends reading it is a bit intimidating, though, so hopefully these articles were less niche-y than the stuff that ended up on Message Sent. I have no idea why there is a Soldat review here. It seems like ages ago that that stuff was part of my life.

I never really thought of Message Sent as any kind of reassurance, but my blog definitely functioned as somewhere to open up. I didn't expect anyone to read this, but thanks to everyone who did. I guess I'd have liked to think people did, people who I'd never met. Now, I have people who I'd never met back then, who feel like people I've known all my life. This school year has been completely refreshing. I've opened up to real people, and while there's still stuff even now that I've kept to myself, it's through writing that I've told people everything I've wanted to tell people. Maybe slightly obliquely, which is perhaps even better.

So I've joined Sheffield Young Writers, and attend Words Aloud, an open-mic poetry night, where I occasionally perform; as well as the newspaper stuff I'm involved with. There are other things too. At the moment it's the summer holidays and I want to write and read everything I've ever meant to, all in this summer. I've got to set targets somewhere, even if they're completely ridiculous. And the only reason I'm writing here again is because I'm getting back into writing articles. I've turned full circle. I've moved away from writing for an audience whom I don't know, met people and generally got a life, and now I'm back to writing for an audience whom I don't know. Of course I know that anyone can just Google my name or click the links on my Facebook, (and of course it's happened), and find me writing this, but I don't expect people to care. I've realised the potential of the blog as an art form, and while I don't expect to gather any dedicated readers whatsoever, I've realised I just want to write in article form with an audience of faceless internet-dwellers. I'm writing because I love words.

Later, I might post some more of my favourite things I've written this year.

25 July 2008

Arts Award article - Arts Event

City of Sheffield Youth Orchestra summer concert

On July 19th, CSYO performed the results of a week of intensive rehearsal, two days before jetting off to Barcelona for their traditional European tour! With friends in the orchestra and an exciting repertoire of Romantic-era pieces, I knew I was going to love the concert.

The concert was held in the relatively small location of All Saints’ (Ecclesall) church, which definitely gave a more intimate feel to their music. The acoustics were amazing, and I was near the front, in the midst of the captivating performance.

Before the performance began, the conductor, Christopher Gayford, made a short speech explaining his selection of the pieces. The concert was centred around Hector Berlioz’ seminal ‘Symphonie Fantastique’, one of my favourite symphonic compositions ever. He explained how this work was perhaps the first piece to incorporate words as part of the presentation – Berlioz wrote descriptions of what was happening in the story in the symphony, which were printed in the program. It is an emotive tale of unrequited love, which escalates into the protagonist’s attempted suicide and drug-induced dreams. This approach to music became very popular in the Romantic era, inspiring several composers to write tone poems, which were pieces of music based on works of poetry. The first composer to develop this form was Franz Liszt, and the orchestra selected his 6th tone poem ‘Mazeppa’, to perform. ‘Mazeppa’ is a poem by Victor Hugo involving an exiled hero who becomes the leader of a group of Cossacks. The final choice was Carl Maria von Weber’s ‘Overture to Der Freischutz’, a work full of emotional contrast, which I studied for A-Level music! The piece was one of the first that is now described as ‘Romantic’, and it greatly influenced Berlioz’ work.

We began with ‘Der Freischutz’, and it was immediately clear that the orchestra had practised the piece meticulously. It began with the ambient woodland scene, and then the orchestra slowly erupted into the dramatic character themes. They performed this piece very accurately indeed - although I spoke to some of the performers afterwards, and they thought that this was the only piece that didn’t go badly!

Not that the other pieces sounded at all unprofessional to the audience, as was proven as they launched into ‘Mazeppa’. Once again they showed great skill, with precision and captivating dynamic contrast. The highlight was the thrilling ‘wild ride’ section, which reflects Mazeppa’s journey tied to a frantic horse.

After the interval, the orchestra began ‘Symphonie Fantastique’. The orchestra admitted that they hadn’t quite got the first movement right, but it still sounded impressive, and the first three, passionate movements were captivating. The symphony becomes more interesting in the 4th and 5th, after the protagonist attempts to overdose on opium. He witnesses his chaotic funeral, complete with a knelling bell. I was wondering how they would approach the inconvenient bell part, until I saw the percussionists run outside the church, and heard the clang of huge tubular bells. They were noticeably out of tune, but I thought the dissonance sounded quite appropriate with the movement’s crazed mood!

Overall, I thought that the choice of music was superb, and the performance was fantastic, although I am admittedly biased. However, I genuinely couldn’t have hoped for a better choice of material performed. If you ever get a chance to see Symphony Fantastique performed, I definitely recommend it. The emotive tone poems of the Romantic era provide a very enjoyable concert!

Thankyou for your attention! This article appears instead of the Björk concert I had originally planned to review. Unfortunately, this concert has been cancelled twice. Grr. This review is a somewhat last-minute replacement. Once again, it would be really awesome if you were to comment on this. Tell me what you think of my writing style, the best bits, and what I left out, or just overall comments.

Arts Award article - My Arts Hero

Jeff Mangum

Jeff Nigh Mangum is the musician best known for his band Neutral Milk Hotel. Jeff and his High School friends were the founding members of a group of musicians known as the ‘Elephant 6’ collective, who were obsessed with melodic pop songs, strongly influenced by The Beach Boys and The Beatles.

Jeff was born in 1970 and grew up in Ruston, Louisiana, along with other future members of Elephant 6. The collective gained momentum as the friends recorded and circulated tapes recorded on four-track recorders, the early forms of their records. Some of Jeff’s have been circulated on the internet, and they sound weirder and weirder the older they are. The other three members were Robert Schneider, who produced and performed on Mangum’s records, who is best known as the frontman of The Apples In Stereo; and Will Cullen Hart and Bill Doss, of The Olivia Tremor Control. The Elephant 6 members relocated to Athens, Georgia, in the mid-90s, and they have mostly stayed there ever since. The collective’s music was popular in American indie circles, particularly during the 1990s, making amazing indie-rock albums such as The Olivia Tremor Control’s ‘Dusk at Cubist Castle’, the ‘Major Organ and the Adding Machine’ project, and most famously, Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’ (‘Aeroplane’). The collective continues to produce music, though I tend to feel it’s reached a point where the experimentation that made them famous really makes their music more and more unlistenable. Other bands that had some relation to Athens or the collective have also represented Elephant 6, most successfully my favourite band, of Montreal, as well as Beirut, Elf Power, and A Hawk and A Hacksaw – all of whom are still enjoying success, particularly in North America.

Mangum’s music fits into the collective’s style, as his songs are essentially simple pop songs using straightforward chord structures, but he incorporates psychedelic elements such as noise, and at times near-incomprehensible lyrics. The most interesting thing about Mangum’s lyrics is trying to figure out what on earth he actually means when he sings his songs, for instance the song ‘Oh Sister’, the video for which is below.

Oh sister, don’t be afraid of me

I won’t be nailing you down in the nursery

Just like the rest of them did with those watery

Wandering fingers that slipped that were supposed to be

Glorious and fine

Oh sister, won’t you believe in me

I only wanted to be hard on your family

Here with you now in the zillionth infirmary

Your mother makes frantic and drunk calls from Germany

All of the time

Oh sister, sweet brown and beulahery

Milk from your blisters on your grandmother's jewellery

There in the parlour all naked in front of me

Watching the light from the cracks making archery

Animal designs

The verses have a remarkable recurring rhyme scheme that really sticks in your head. Jeff combines made up words, (‘Beulah’ was another Elephant 6 band), striking descriptions of the members of the family, and distorted sexual imagery; these themes are common in his lyrics. There is contrast between sensitivity and pain, and each verse sounds like a fragment of a dream – dreams being a huge part of his lyrics. Jeff states that,

“I have this song called ‘Ferris Wheel on Fire’, and in the dreams a lot of times I'll be walking around and there is this Ferris wheel in flames, and I'm on the ground walking through the crowd – a lot of the songs are influenced by my dreams.”

His lyrics tend to confuse people. You have to be really in tune with his style in order to understand what is going on and why he is singing these things. One of the things people tend to find quite repelling about ‘Aeroplane’ is ‘King of Carrot Flowers Part 2’. This is the bit where he yells “I love you Jesus Christ”… it’s often cited as the main thing you have to get past with the album, and it’s also been interpreted so many ways. Mangum isn’t religious, that’s for sure. Whether he just thought Jesus was a great role model, or whether he was using a different voice, or anything, it’s never really been explained. The liner notes state that

“Since this seems to confuse people I’d like to simply say that I mean what I sing although the theme of endless endless on this album is not based on any religion but more in the belief that all things seem to contain a white within them that I see as eternal”.

Admittedly, Jeff’s lyrics are enough to turn anyone pretentious. Still, this sort of sprawling prose is just what the album’s lyrics are about, jagged chunks of poignant emotion.

As for the music itself, Neutral Milk Hotel were always fond of horns, played by Scott Spillane, as well as using many instruments I’ve never heard of, (the lines notes of ‘Aeroplane’ list instruments including “wandering genie”, “zanzithophone”, and “one-note piano”). An example of this is the title song from ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’.

There are lights in the clouds

Anna's ghost all around

Hear her voice as it's rolling and ringing through me

Soft and sweet

How the notes all bend and reach above the trees

The song is to some extent a testimony to the emotional power of music, a power that Mangum has mastered. He refers to “Anna’s ghost”, referencing Anne Frank, who appears in most of the songs on the album, and is described in the song ‘Holland 1945’ as “The only girl I’ve ever loved”. Mangum speculates visions of her resurrection; in ‘Oh Comely’ he laments “I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine”. His lyrics are written with the most blank honesty I’ve ever heard… the word ‘quixotic’ describes these feelings quite well. I had to look it up during my research, but it means he’s using all this romantic imagery to make up for the fact that he can’t really achieve any of his dreams. And that is the most striking thing about the album: beneath horns and Mangum’s warped, yelping voice, his bare emotion is transmitted through him and an acoustic guitar.

In fact, ‘Oh Comely’ was recorded in one single 8-minute take, with horns added afterwards. ‘Aeroplane’ is probably the most consistently brilliant album I’ve ever heard. The themes and stories in the songs fit perfectly – even with the instrumentals, and the song ‘King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 3’, which Mangum wrote about a decade earlier – the thing as a whole locks into one finished work of art, seeming to stem directly from one moment in this man’s life, every thought flowing around his head. This approach to the themes on the album has greatly influenced my own creative writing.

‘Aeroplane’ is universally regarded as Mangum’s magnum opus, and so his earlier album ‘On Avery Island’ is often overlooked. This album is mostly Jeff’s work, with Robert Schneider acting as a technical helper and producer. While the record isn’t as cohesive as ‘Aeroplane’, certain songs possess inarguably moving lyrics and similarly psychedelic, yet honest, lyrics. It’s more accessible in places, for instance the song ‘Gardenhead’ features a tune that could almost be described as catchy.

There are beads that wrap around your knees that crackle into the dark

Like a walk in the park like a hole in your head

Like the feeling you get when you realise you’re dead

This time

We ride rollercoasters into the ocean

We feel no emotion as we spiral down

To the world and I guess it’s worth your time

Cause some lives you live and some you leave behind

It gets hard to explain

The Gardenhead knows my name

Of course, it’s barely pop music, and some of Jeff’s lyrics are downright disturbing. For instance, there’s the snippet entitled ‘Goldaline’. This fragment works in so many musical contexts, one chopped-up verse that is recycled in several of Neutral Milk Hotel’s early works. It is most effective in its last incarnation, in ‘Oh Comely’, as the song effectively modulates into A minor, and Mangum shifts to the verse’s surreal vision of Siamese twins in a forest.

Goldaline my dear

We will fold and freeze together

Far away from here

There is sun and spring and green forever

But now we move to feel

For ourselves inside some stranger’s stomach

Place your body here

Let your skin begin to blend itself with mine…

It’s the monolithic verse of the album, the most striking and possibly most important. Although the Siamese twins are a new character, it harkens back to the imagery from another song, ‘Two-Headed Boy’, and in 8 lines it reflects the album’s many themes. Sexuality is represented in the gruesome line “Let your skin begin to blend itself with mine” – yet it also mirrors the possibly incestuous lyrics of ‘King of Carrot Flowers’. The twins huddle together awaiting the jaws of some terrible beast, if only to escape the coldness of life. Mangum’s spiritual views of death are also discussed in ‘Holland 1945’, describing a beautiful resurrection, and the twins, are freezing in this life, far from the “sun and spring and green” that other people feel. They yearn for the fulfilling warmth of death.

But it’s not all that grotesque. Despite all the death and decay, Mangum’s bare emotion is presented in a thoroughly beautiful way. The lyrics are inarguably repulsive, yet ‘Aeroplane’ is an album which has topped a ‘Best albums of the 90s’ by Magnet, and lingers in the top 10 of several others, including a 4th place with Pitchfork Media, who described it as, “an impossibly rich text that begs to be deciphered, yet continually evades any singular interpretation”, comparing the album to TS Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’. It’s quite understandable if you’re feeling completely confused and repelled by the music you’ve heard in the YouTube videos. I was confused at first too. It latches onto you with threads and steadily begins to make sense. For me, it became the most incredible work of art I’ve ever witnessed, and I know that many people agree.

So why do I regard Mangum as a hero? He’s not changed the world at large. At the height of his career he had a nervous breakdown, (although he says “It was a very wonderful thing to have happen to me”), and retreated to obscurity, leaving many people to speculate about his whereabouts and personal health. The last Neutral Milk Hotel-related appearance was in 2000, under a pseudonym – ‘World of Wild Beards’ – in a pub in New Zealand, where he explained his absence, and how his presence at the show was because “We just wanted to get away from our new president”. Since then, he’s been dipping in and out of Elephant 6 projects, his contributions rarely going beyond ‘guest instrumentalist’, or ‘backing vocals’. In late 2007, he married Astra Taylor, a film-maker, and he still lives in Athens.

So, Mangum’s impact is not on a global scale. Those who heard his record generally adored it, and a significant, perhaps somewhat scary number of people are as obsessed with it as I am. His work has been a huge influence on the music of Bright Eyes, the Arcade Fire, and Cursive. He’s been described as a bit of a weirdo magnet. As Mike McGonigal wrote:

“I can recall one show, watching afterward as Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum dealt with some guy who'd made, like, a magical sculpture depicting how great the band was, using his own chewed-up gum or something. Another cross-eyed girl with long hair held onto Jeff's forearms for 20 minutes, as she told him exactly how important his message was to the planet…”

While this might be a little excessive, I too must confessed unrestrained adoration for this man’s lyrics, to the point of idolisation. Mangum has expressed confusion and discomfort regarding all this attention, and the prospect of him recording more music for Neutral Milk Hotel is looking increasingly unlikely. But most fans are satisfied in his offering of the most hideous and beautiful music they’ve ever heard.

Thanks for reading! If you have feedback, please comment below. You could comment on my writing style, the best parts, if there's anything you feel I left out, or should have left out, or just give me general comments. If it inspired you to listen to more Neutral Milk Hotel, that would be awesome. Speaking of which, there's an excellent EP-length live show (Jeff Mangum solo, Live in San Francisco @ Aquarius Records) available on the Elephant 6 website, here.