Saturday, 26 September 2009

New Readers Start Here

If you're here because I gave you a slip at the store today, then the first thing I have to say is thank you. Because if I gave you one of those slips, it's because you donated money to International PEN, to whom I am dedicating my hour on the Fourth Plinth as part of Antony Gormley's One and Other project. Not only that, it means you bothered to follow the link on the slip, which probably makes you quite a rare person indeed. I'm under no illusions that most of those slips won't end up in peoples' wastepaper baskets but, at least in your case, they didn't. You're generous, you listen to people when they talk to you, and you're curious enough to follow up information when it's given to you. You're exactly the sort of person I want reading this blog, in fact. Welcome aboard.

And now, orientation. First a little about me, then a little - probably a lot - about my plans for One and Other, and how I want you to take part.

*** Important Brevityfail Warning - Extremely Long Post ***
Due to my own crippling verbosity and the sheer amount of information I'm trying to get across to you here, this post has turned out to be, in specialised posting terminology, VFL or Very Flippin' Long. If you're busy, but still want to know what my plans are for the plinth, I recommend you skip to the section helpfully formatted in bold towards the bottom of this entry. Thank you.

*** We now return you to the rest of the post ***

What do you need to know about me? I've been writing and performing poetry for ten years. I've been published by a variety of magazines and I've performed in Liverpool, Hastings, Edinburgh, Baltimore and just about every place you can mention in the North East. I've had a long hiatus from writing on a serious basis while I've been working on my psychology degree, but I've returned to it now that I'm done with that. During the summer, I applied, almost on a whim, to take part in One and Other, never expecting that I'd be one of the people selected. Having made an application, I promptly forgot all about it. I still watched the plinth, but the thought of being on it had clean left my mind.

Until the message arrived in my inbox, telling me I had been chosen. As you can imagine, my first thought was 'oh f**k.' My second thought was that I should immediately hit the reject button. I wasn't confident. I wasn't prepared, and I didn't have a great deal of time in which to prepare. I wasn't ready. Wasn't good enough. Not worthy.

My third thought, fortunately, was that I should stop being so bloody stupid. And that instead of repeating all the reasons why I couldn't do it, I should click accept and start thinking instead about what I could do.

As a poet I knew that I could perform some work on the plinth. But I wanted to do something more. I hit on the idea of writing something with the audience: with that thought in place, it was a question of what to write and how to go about writing it. Having joined Twitter recently, I was interested in the potential for using it as a creative space. Plus, I realised, by asking people to help on Twitter, I could expand my potential temporary writing collective beyond whoever happened to be in Trafalgar Square at the time.

But what to write? That was the question. And it was one I decided to back-burner for a while, while I looked into finding a charity to represent.

I chose International PEN because, as a writer and a bookseller, as someone who trafficks with the written word almost every hour of the day, their role as defenders of free expression was something that resonated with me. I also knew they were a less well-known charity, and so I felt that by dedicating my plinth time to them, I could have a more positive effect in raising awareness of them, their work, and the threats which are faced by writers, journalists and librarians around the world today who dare to criticise repressive regimes. Money-wise, I couldn't match the donations they receive from their corporate sponsors; but if I could at least say that, because of me, people who wouldn't otherwise have heard of PEN now had, that would be an achievement. And I've managed that. And raised quite a bit of money too, though how much I don't know, yet - in my stupidity I purchased a receptacle for the money which I can only open by destroying it. It's pretty damn heavy now, and I know there's a lot of £1 and £2 coins in there, so we'll just have to see. Wednesday night's when it gets opened and counted. Stay tuned for the big reveal!

So - what do I do with the hour? I toyed with various ideas, but finally, at about two in the morning one night, I hit on the idea that had been staring me in the face all along.

Freedom of expression is what PEN are all about. It's also something important to me as a poet. In my poetry, I get to express, in a lyrical manner, truths about myself and my world which would fall flat if I had to describe them prosaically in my halting, stumbling everyday voice, but which gain a higher truth and meaning from being said in the controlled form of poetry. Furthermore, I've always seen part of my role as giving voice to people who are denied a voice in the culture, or people whose voice doesn't get heard because of the endless thumping drone of bigotry, ignorance and lies to which we are daily subjected by the media. This, I realised, had to play a part in the collective writing part of the hour. So here are the details of the exercise:

The Fourth Plinth Piece - all you need to know

1. It will be titled 'I'm afraid to say this, but...'
2. It will have a rough sonnet form - 14 lines in all.
3. Every line will be a contribution from a member of the public, whether shouted out or tweeted.
4. Every line will be a continuation of the first sentence, e.g. 'I'm afraid to say this but...I don't believe in God/I'm in love with my best friend/I have disturbing thoughts about Anne Robinson etc etc'
5. I will work on it with the audience as I perform my other work. When we have a fallow period, I'll get on with performing, and check in with people periodically to see how we're doing.
6.At the end of the hour, I will perform the poem as the closing number of my set.

What I want people to contribute are things they fear to say. What I'm exploring here is the idea that, in this culture, we curtail freedom of expression, but in more subtle ways than imprisonment or assassination. By the end of the hour we'll have a poem which represents a record of the kind of things people felt they couldn't say in Britain and around the world in the year 2009. More information on what I'm trying to say with this here.

This has been a long post, and you're busy, but if you've read this far it's time for me to say thank you again for taking the time. I hope you'll help me out by contributing your thoughts to this piece of work, and I hope you stick around. Stay tuned.

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