Monday, 27 June 2011

We Are The Beatles: Lennon and Lennon

On Collaborating with Helen Thomas

I count myself as very lucky to have a writing pal I trust enough to collaborate with. Now, it’s not unusual for musicians to collaborate – think McCartney and Lennon – but I don’t know any poets who collaborate with other poets (unless they’re married).

Raymond Carver had his editor Gordon Lish, and I’ve got Helen Thomas.

It started when we spent time together on a poets trip to the New York book launch of Short Fuse: A global anthology of new fusion poets, editors Todd Swift and Philip Norton. We hit it off straight away, and had much fun there, where - during a radio interview - Todd said we were like the new Beatles. This was when our collaboration began. We both wanted to be John Lennon – I wrote a poem called Lennon and Lennon, and Helen wrote We Are The Beatles. I guess – okay Helen – that Helen (who’s a no-nonsense Northerner from Lymm in Cheshire) is indeed more Lennon, whereas because I’m from hippy-trippy South West Bristol, I’m more McCartney (gawd, I can’t bear Paul McCartney).

We decided to write a stage play based on our adventures (which was never finished), where I’d write one scene, send it to Helen, who’d polish it, then she’d send the next scene to me where I’d add my alterations/ suggestions, and so it carried on. We discovered that we were on the same wave length, and I trusted her opinion completely.

I’ve admired Helen and her word craft from the off, and have to say that her suggestions have been spot on.

Next I asked Helen’s advice and editorial skills on a few poems. They were mainly ones which I had a deadline for. We both found that something new was happening. It wasn’t a mere case of editing. I found that my work was transformed by Helen’s intervention, and she said that she’d never have written anything like the finished poems if I hadn’t begun them. The finished poems which we wrote together, then, were an amalgam of both our talents – and I think greater than the whole. A bit like Lennon’s rough added to McCartney’s smooth. Not that Helen’s poems are rough at all! I had (have) a tendancy to waffle and write more dancing poetry whereas Helen’s were (are) tight with no lean meat. If you’ve not read Helen’s poems then do.

I guess we both have the same sort of humour and find the same things funny, which is essential. I can’t imagine this sort of creative partnership with anyone else. Helen now collaborates with her partner Owen and they are Tingle In The Netherlands – again, visit them on facebook/ youtube, myspace, etc.

I hate anyone else’s input on my work – which is a terrible thing to admit – but I know that Helen can tweak something even better from my poetry.

I don’t call on Helen for all my poems – after all, she has her own work. But also because many of my poems are distinctively mine and have my voice. I enjoy the ones on which Helen and I have collaborated or which she’s edited for me. They have that extra Helen oomph!

The process usually starts with me contacting Helen in a panic – I have a poem I need for a festival/ performance, etc., and it’s just not coming together and I’m running out of time. I’ll then send it to Helen, and she’ll send back suggestions (usually in red). They could be suggested alterations, suggested rhymes for me to think about, or just a “I don’t think this scans”. It always gives me an injection of creativity and helps either jumpstart the poem, or triggers an avenue I’d not thought of, or highlights something I knew deep down wasn’t working.

So, here’s one of the first poems we collaborated on. It ended up a joint poem as Helen picked out many of my lines, added some new ones, and made tight suggestions. We wrote it for one of my performances at Ashton Court Festival (it’s credited to us both).

We Are The World by HelĂȘn Thomas and Rosemary Dun

By aspirant bouncing butterflies, I crouched coy as a grub

Back stage at the One World Festival, I wasn’t in their club

Of housewives with a hobby, belly dancing, flounced in silk

Some looked like Mr. Blobby with skin as white as milk.

Pot bellies swathed in chiffon, they danced the seven veils.

Not one of them was muslim, but some had come from Wales.

“We love the Arab traditions,” trills Mrs. Pontin-Fraynes

Elsewhere in far off deserts, vultures peck at shallow graves.

The Cotswold Samba Band’s as hot as Salsa and tequila

Amplified like gun shots on the streets of the Favela

As the future of a hunted child forever lies unfurled

His culture’s cherry picked by those who sing, “We are the world!”

And so I seek asylum in the toilets down the hall

From the Anglo Saxon Mummers, and their global festival.

Their faces stodgy cake mix paste, no dusky maidens here,

Just flaccid white bread, lemonade, drop scones and ginger beer.

So, thanks Helen, and until the next time xxx

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Columbo, My Mother, And Me


We now live in an age where television and film help form part of our own personal historical and emotional landscapes. Yesterday came the news that Peter Falk, the actor who played Columbo, was dead. I felt sad, in a way which touched me viscerally. This is ridiculous, I thought, you didn’t even know the man. But then I realized that it wasn’t about the whole celebrity movie star thing - where you can feel as if you know someone and are then sorry for their passing. This ran deeper. And I realized it was much to do with my emotional landscape. This led me to reflect, blab out loud in the ether, about the intimate interaction between ourselves and that box in the corner of the room. Television has a way of inveigling itself into our lives on an emotional level, maybe even deeper than literature in the form of favourite books, can.

I would not have been bereft if I’d seen in the newspapers that Lizzie Bennet had died or that Jo March had been run over by a bus. These, I know at a deep intellectual – yes and emotional - level are fictional characters. And yet, onscreen with a much-loved television character the identification and emotional melding with character also embraces the actor: a living embodiment of a much-loved fictional character. Even though one’s intellectual brain is telling you that they are a separate person, somewhere on a more primitive visceral level there’s a bit which connects the onscreen with the actual. Our perceptions of reality are blurred.

I don’t mean that if I’d met Peter Falk I would have been one of those crazies, convinced that he was Columbo and not Peter Falk – but I’d also be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that a little voice somewhere would be trying to pipe up with “Look, there’s Columbo!”

So why did Peter Falk’s dying make me feel more sad than I’d ever been about other stars/ celebrities passing? It came to me, like one of Columbo’s flashes – “Doh,’ slaps head with hand – it’s because it’s a connection to my mother. I have fond memories of sitting on the sofa with my mother – now herself long dead, and who had loved Columbo. I adored my mother and absorbed many of her loves. I grew up with Columbo as part of my emotional landscape. My mum told me how Peter Falk was part of the new American cinema new wave alongside John Cassavetes, Gina Rowland, and Ben Gazzara. She told me all about his glass eye, as I tried to figure out which one. Yes, Columbo is inextricably woven into memories of my mother. With him gone, another piece of her goes too. Rational? No. The truth? Yes. Or something close to it.

Oh, and one more thing.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

How The Light Gets In: Hay On Wye Festival

Well, this will be my third attempt to write this blog this morning. Computer keeps freezing - I need work! So, like the How The Light Gets In why not book me for my one-woman show called If Love Is The Answer, What Is The Question? One hour long.

How did this all come about? I was approached by the lovely people at the music and philosophy festival How The Light Gets In which runs alongside the BIG Hay On Wye Festival. I was thrilled to be invited to perform during an hour's slot 2.30-3.30 on Weds. 1st June 2011. Whoopee!

A couple of weeks before the big event, and I'm thinking OK, wonder who else is on with me? A quick check revealed that I had the whole hour to myself and that I was billed as Live Comedy! Eek! And also Woo hoo! Exciting and scary. So, being the old trouper that I am I immediately panicked and thought I know - I'll get - a UKELELE!!! (Bear with me - all will become clear).

Yay! But I can't play the ukelele.
So, I searched for ukelele lessons and luckily there was a 2-hour workshop in Bristol. Along I went, and there were about 20 people there too! So, I reckon that my lesson was about the equivalent of 10 mins uke instructions. Never mind! I went home and realised that I couldn't remember any of the chords, that they were too complex, as was the strumming which I couldn't do either. So, driven by panic - only 2 weeks and counting to the show, I picked something which sounded ok and wrote (well ok devised) a chorus about - Brian Cox! Then added verses (with the help of my mate Helen Thomas - more about that in another blog), and I had my comedy song-slash-poetry mash up (or as I like to refer to it, my mish-mash up!) Taking heart from a late-night tv viewing of Stewart Lee asserting that comedy songs are the way to go!

Next - and through diddling about on the internet researching space, philosophy, etc. I came across the sad story of Laika the space dog. David Bowie's Major Tom kept playing in my head, and I discovered that by noodling about on my uke, I could pick out the melody, and so the song-slash-poem Laika Dog was born, the chorus being : Hound control to Laika Dog/ take your worming pills, get ready for lift off/ etc. (You get the drift ...). Oh, and some lovely drawings courtesy of my daughter Morgan.

Ok, this was coming along - then a poem on philosophy, plus another comedy song based on The Rapture (the predicted coming of the Lord on 21st May which never materialised) was - of course - based on Country Joe and The Fish Vietnam Song - accompanied on a newly purchased tambourine!! Oh yes!

Good, good, coming together. Next a chat through with my mate and sometime collaborator Helen Thomas on content, and before I knew it the rest of the show had come together. I decided on a theme - something which had been running through my head for a while and there it was. My very own new one woman show!
I'm a big fan of going with first thoughts - as suggested by Natalie Goldberg - and it was amazing how seemingly random thoughts and ideas coalesced into a show with an overall theme. I'm also a bit of a devotee of surrealists random-ness, and the audience participation - which went extremely well, formed a large part of this. We did a list poem together, a flip chart was involved, some laughter, a small open mike, and a resolution of: If Love Is The Answer, What Is The Question. Finishing off with a playing out to The Beatles All You Need Is Love - preceded by a random (and hilariously unexpected) fanfare in the middle of one of my poems as the sound engineer, who'd been fiddling about with the levels on the cd accidentally fired up All You Need Is Love, and the excellent trumpeted fanfare rang out. Brilliant. I shall use that as an intro for my next show.

I loved the overall DIY feel of it all which I think is very much in keeping with my punk roots!

All in all, I had a lovely time. I do hope the audience did too. The tent was full, and no-one left before the end (so that was a result!!). I sold some books an all!

Many thanks to Josh who was my able assistant and wrote up the list poem on flip chart for me, and to his girlfriend Lily who had the chutzpah to write a four-line poem and get up on stage. Random cards were handed out for the list poem with the words Love is ... Those with the cards to then finish the line. The result was this list poem - written just as the cards came in (i.e. randomly - I love that, it gives more surprises!):

Love is

finding somebody permanent who you can annoy for life

looking after that special somebody

listening and keeping quiet

better as it gets older: far less messy!

pushing your mum in a wheelchair - uphill!

a warm jumper when it's cold.

a hot chocolate in the rain.

a dog bounding in the sea.


a four-letter word

a tangled web

a gentle breeze blowing loneliness away

sharing time, enjoying each other's company,
being generous and knowing it's ok to be who you are!

Ah, and then ... but I can't really give away the rest as that's the point of the whole show.

If you'd like to book me for a thought-provoking, interactive, and rib-tickling hour-long show of music-slash-words-slash-comedy mish-mash-up, then do get in
I had lots of fun at the festival. Good food. Stayed at a wonderful B&B (I want them to adopt me!), bumped into a musician from Bristol who used to come along and perform at the openmike nights I used to host at Bristol's Folk House, hung out with some people I met at my show, and stayed for the comedy in the evening where the highlight for me was - yes, a comedienne performing comedy songs on her ukelele!! It's the way to go folks!

Peace and love, and happy festival season.