Thursday, 31 December 2009

Happy New Year, readers!

I'd like to take this opportunity to wish everyone who follows this blog my commiserations on the shitstorm 2009 turned out to be, and my naieve hopes that 2010 will be a better and more prosperous year for you, me, and all the people and causes we care for. I know I'll be working to make it that way: hopefully I'll land a few more good punches in the next 12 months.

I did want to do a long 'review of the year style' post, but, y'know, feck it, who has the time? But as a gift for readers, have a gander at this link to a youtube video of Tori Amos covering Bonnie Tyler (and not in the way some of you imagine, you filthy, filthy bastards). And if you consider that an inadequate recompense for a year's worth of faithful service, I beg leave to remind you not to fuck with the Ears with Feet.

Seriously, though: I love you all, and thanks a billion bundles for putting up with my witterings. Now, piss off and enjoy whatever you're doing, and I'll be back to rant at you some more in 2010.

Monday, 28 December 2009

More Elizabethan Musings

So I've been researching the sequence I'm toying with about Elizabeth by listening to the audiobook of David Starkey's Elizabeth, which is read excellently by Patricia Hodge (it's a performance which is, what I call, quite good).

One thing I've learned from this is that the final line of yesterday's poem will need changing. Elizabeth wouldn't have regarded Henry as a 'fiend' - if anything she seems to have been something of a daddy's girl, at least after Henry welcomed her back to court - which is a shame because I quite like that line. But there are two interestingly juicy points which will be worked into the sequence. First of all, Elizabeth was meant to be a boy: all the major astrologers Henry had consulted had predicted she would be male, the letters announcing the birth of 'a young prince' had already been written, and Henry's biggest problem was whether to call the lad Edward or Henry. The second interesting fact, while not strictly gender-related, is that Anne Boleyn supplied Elizabeth with loads of expensive clothes after the young prince(ss) was installed at her own private court in Hatfield House. Unsurprisingly, this supply dried up after Anne's execution, and there was a period during Elizabeth's childhood when she literally had nothing to wear. Later in life, she apparently made sure the royal wardrobes were stocked with hundreds of dresses...

I'm not sure at this point what form the Elizabeth sequence is going to take, but it'll definitely include something about these.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Elizabeth, the Woman King

Beneath the swagger portrait
she stands, legs wide, arms angled,
hands, raised to harp or dance,
to be plighted, an enchanting gift,
their pallor and their dainty size
a toy for kings to stroke
with their rough fists,
and marvel at, returning
from campaign, or from the lists,

turned in, and resting on the skirts
which flare from where her hips must be:
thick cloth, stiffed with willow-bent,
so she may echo, in her shape,
the man whose pose she imitates,
the absent lion, England’s finest monster:
this brawling, warring, whoring fiend her father.

* * *

I've became fascinated with Queen Elizabeth I recently, and particularly her odd position as a woman forced to follow in the thundering footsteps of her father, Henry VIII, a king who set a benchmark for an over-the-top, brawling, angry, I-want-it-all image of masculinity which looms large over the English collective psyche. As Simon at Obsessed with Film has pointed out, King 'Enery is a role which just about every major English actor with a certain heft has had a crack at at one time or other, and Elizabeth seems to occupy a similar position for Britain's female actors: in recent years alone we've had Helen Mirren, Anne-Marie Duff, and Cate Blanchett try their hand at playing the 'Virgin Queen', and it's fair to say she occupies a position in English culture just as important as that of her wife-decapitating, pork-chop-munching, church-establishing father.

I think a lot of the interest in Elizabeth and Henry derives from the fact that we imagine a contrast between them: Henry is a sexually rampant monster, a pre-embodiment of 'lad culture', while Elizabeth is an eternally unsullied national matriarch, the Ice Queen Gloriana of an England which forever stands alone. But this is the complexion we've put on things after the facts, and it ignores a key reality of gender politics in the Tudor era, specifically that Henry could get away with it; Elizabeth couldn't. Can you imagine what would have been done to a female ruler if she'd carried on in the same way as Henry? How people of her own time, and future generations, would perceive her? Well, you don't have to imagine very far: consider Catherine the Great. Catherine wasn't by any measure as much of a monster as Henry - but Henry makes it into the history books as a lovable, bumbling, Falstaffian figure, while Catherine is eternally remembered as a crazed sex-vampire who met her end trying to be pleasured by a horse (an urban legend which is, in fact, entirely without foundation). And Catherine's reign took place centuries after that of Elizabeth! Clearly, Elizabeth was never going to be able to get away with acting like Henry in matters of the flesh even if she wanted to jump the bones of every hot courtier she saw (a view hereafter to be known as the 'Sexy Tudors' school of history).

The odd thing is that in some ways, Elizabeth tried to act a lot like Henry. The poem above is about something my ex-wife, Michelle - a major Elizabeth-nerd - once told me. Elizabeth had a copy of Holbein's famous 'swagger portrait' of her father hanging up in her chambers and, when giving important people an audience, she would stand underneath the picture and place her hands on her hips in imitation of Henry's pose.

The implied meaning of this, of course, is that she was reminding people who her dad had been, and that they'd better watch out, but it's an image I find interesting for other reasons. Here we have a woman who's became an icon of a particular kind of feminine power (Margaret Thatcher's self-presentation during her reign as British PM can almost be regarded as a kind of Elizabeth tribute act), and one of the ways in which she herself asserts power is by trying to alter her gender presentation so she comes across as more masculine. What if Elizabeth saw herself, not as a Queen, but as a woman who had to act like a King?

It's not as far-fetched as it might seem. The discourse of power at the time was entirely male, diplomacy and nation-management described in terms of what 'a prince' should do. Elizabeth had seen how her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, had come unstuck by being a good girl and relying on her husbands to take care of her: maybe she decided to forget about getting a man in and deal with the King business herself. She even pretty much said as much, in the famous Armada speech - 'I have the heart and stomach of a King', remember?

Entirely predictably, I find this aspect of Elizabeth - the way in which she deliberately confounded expectations of how she, as a woman, should behave - extremely interesting, and I suspect the poem above is probably going to be the start of a sequence. We'll see how it goes. This is all very much W-i-P, though, so I value your thoughts.

The Honest Scrap Blogger Award

Kristen Mchugh at Carnival of the Random has conferred on me something called the Honest Scrap Blogger Award, for which much thanks. Under the terms of the award, though, I have to do two things: first, I have to tell you ten true things about myself which no-one knows, second, I have to confer the award on ten more bloggers to spur them to further acts of embarrassing self-disclosure.

I'm going to interpret the first commandment fairly loosely, as ten things which people reading this blog probably won't know about me. There are probably one or two people irl who'll know these things, but for the most part, I hope, they'll be new for you.

1) It doesn't always show up in photos, but I have two different coloured eyes. This is actually a source of mild irritation to me because, when you have different coloured eyes, people always mention David Bowie to you, and Bowie doesn't have different coloured eyes. I'm a massive Bowie fan, and one of the many teeny bits of trivia which Bowie fans accumulate at the expensive of remembering more useful information like, say, which bit of the periodic table tells you the atomic weight of an element, is that the Dame's eyes appear to be different colours because one of his pupils is larger than the other as a result of having a brick thrown at him as a kid, an accident which also distorted his depth perception permanently. I have normal depth perception and normal-size pupils, so my eyes really are different colours...

2) When I was much younger I saw something one night which at the time I thought of as a ghost, but which I'm now inclined to regard as a hallucination brought on by sleep deprivation. At the time I was terrified of seeing ghosts or, more accurately, being seen by them, and decided the best way to deal with this was to stay up all night and keep watch for the feckers. Unsurprisingly, I eventually saw something, in this case, a bearded head floating above the bottom of my bed. After that experience I figured that it was definitely more frightening to see something that shouldn't be there than to be watched by such a thing, so I made sure I always got plenty of sleep thereafter.

3) Despite having enjoyed David Tennant and Patrick Stewart's performance in it yesterday, I actually think Hamlet is a bit of a mess as a play. To me, it lacks the sense of inevitability that characterises Macbeth, the sense that every action the protagonist takes leads inexorably to their doom, and that doom has been set in motion from their first wrong decision.

4) I'm genderqueer rather than trans, so, while I don't entirely conform to the rules for male gender expression I don't devote massive amounts of effort to 'passing' as female. Despite this, on three separate occassions in the past few months I've been casually assumed to be a girl by people with whom I've interacted. Two of these people were women, all of them were cis (i.e. non-trans). I find this interesting because, if someone like me can screw peoples' perceptions so effectively, it suggests that the widely-held idea that there are tell-tale signs which mean you can always tell trans women from cis women is, well, a load of old (untucked) bollocks.

5) I've always regretted the fact that I never kept up the piano lessons I took when I was young. Having an instrument to hide behind when performing would give me a much greater feeling of security than having to stand up in front of people with just a microphone, the poems I've memorised, and my back-up portfolio.

6) While I'm always open and confident in my writing, I'm actually painfully shy in a personal context. At most gigs I tend to spend most of my non-performing time floating around, desperately wishing I had the gumption to talk to people, and constantly thinking that I must look a tool.

7) I have very long toes: the second toe on each of my feet is only slightly shorter than my little finger. As a result of this I'm actually pretty good at picking things up with my feet. A jiu-jitsu instructor once described my toes as 'elegant' and I still class this as one of the ten nicest things anyone's ever said to me.

8) I once saw Ant McPartlin (of Ant 'n' Dec, Geordie TV presenting duo) while out walking around Newcastle, and said 'hello' to him, because I vaguely recognised him as someone I knew. It only occurred to me a few feet later, when I realised who he was, that I only 'knew' him from watching television, and had never met him in real life. I imagine this probably happens to celebrities all the time, and must be one of the more bizarre things about being famous.

9) When I was younger and trying far too hard to be interesting, I used to be something of a hanger-on in the local fetish scene (I never got that heavily into it, I might add, I just liked the clothes - though I did, once, let someone run an electric current through my nipples, to see how it felt. Tingly, since you ask.) and there exists, somewhere, a sketch of me attempting to open a wine bottle with a high-heeled shoe I borrowed from a drag queen because I'd forgot to bring a corkscrew. It's one of my biggest regrets that I never bought this sketch from the guy who did it, because it would make a great illustration if I ever decide to write an autobiography.

10) I share a bathroom at the moment with my parents, and my mum has a skin condition which makes me paranoid to use bath bombs, foam, salts etc when taking a bath because I'm worried their residue might cause her to suffer a reaction. As a consequence of this I have genuinely considered staying the night in a hotel simply because I could marinade myself in a variety of Lush products guilt-free. The fact that I would almost certainly do this if I had the money is one of the few things that makes me think my being poor is a good thing.

Phew! That was hard work. Now, the nominations:

I confer the Honest Scrap Blogger Award upon the following people:

Lisy Babe
Thomas Moronic
The Redhead
Nikki Dudley
Jessica Johnson
Robbie Hurst
and Kate Fox, why not, eh?

God, that took bloody ages. I hope to god some of you lot I've tagged here do your own answers. Otherwise I'll feel a right tool. Right. Off now.

Friday, 25 December 2009

A Very Merry Cismas

It was a good christmas, on the whole. Sure, the shop where I work closed and I lost my job, and, sure, I still have a massive wodge of glue on my head from having to have a gash in it patched up after I decided to fight a metal fire escape last week, but on the whole things are good. I found out I've lost four inches off my waist. I found this out because my parents bought me new jeans which actually fit. My ex-wife got me a bottle of Jack Daniels and a Dylan Moran DVD which I'm watching now; I had enough money to buy myself a bottle of Barolo which I'm drinking now; and my folks went to the trouble of getting in nachos and dip which I'm munching my way through now. I shouldn't be, really: my gran came over and we all had a ridiculously massive dinner, with turkey and pork and sausagemeat and stuffing and parsnips and yorkshire puddings and carrots and pigs in blankets (oh my!), and really I probably ought not to eat for a week, but fuck it, it's christmas! If you can't enjoy yourself at this time of year, when can you?

Of course, there are people who find it hard to enjoy themselves at this time of year.

One of the major advances in my writing this year came when I had to prepare for the Plinth in Trafalgar Square, and I realised the frequency and intensity with which gender issues come up in my work. Practically all the time in what I write I find myself obsessing with issues of what it means to be a man, or a woman, what behaviour marks you out as such, and why I just plain prefer doing things the gender binary says I shouldn't. I like wearing make-up, I like acting femme, and I'm attracted, usually, to girls who don't. It comes up again and again in my work, it's something I think about a lot; but because I'm so frakking dense, I never realised how damn genderqueer I was until the facts were there in front of me, when I looked at everything I'd written up to this October and thought, wow, I kinda think about this shit a lot.

And so, because I'm a regular Willow Rosenberg, I began researching. I mined the internet for facts. I read whatever I could find in the local library which seemed, to me, to be relevant (which wasn't much, to be honest, in a hick town in the North East of England). Through the agency of the fine authors and twitterers Poppy Z Brite and Caitlin R Kiernan (who really are two of the best writers on the planet, and whose work you ought to read whatever you think you may be), I began to become acquainted with the trans community on Twitter, in the course of which I temporarily became a satirist , but, more importantly, I learned a fucking lot. And one of the things I learned is that I'm a fucking lucky bastard.

And I'm lucky because, as queer as I am, I'm not trans and, more specifically, I'm not a trans woman. I've written before about the disgraceful murder statistics for trans women, and I want to draw your attention - your and my privileged attention - to the fact that while we're all basking in the love of our families and material bounty which would, a century ago, have marked us out as some kind of tribal potentate, for many women who had the misfortune to be born into the wrong kind of body, and the courage to do something about that, Christmas is anything but a happy time. And rather than get on my guilty white liberal high horse and preach, I'd prefer it if you followed, and read, these links to important, informative, and moving posts from the blogs of gudbuytjane and Helen at Bird of Paradise.

I'm lucky and, if you're reading this blog, the chances are that you're lucky too. And that's fine. We won't change the world by wearing a hair shirt and flagellating ourselves (you might have fun if you do that but, y'know, your thing is your thing...), but we might change just a little bit if we remain conscious of the fact that we are so lucky, and that our 'luck' in fact represents a widespread system of kyriarchal prejudice which functions to keep certain people at the bottom of the heap, and that we might create a world in which those people can have the same 'luck' we have if we change our own attitudes to those people and give them space to speak...give them space to speak? No. That's not right. Respect their goddam right to speak and help spread and publicise the things they have to say so that the people who would deny them their rights feel like the shamefaced idiots they are and step aside.

Helen, and Jane, and every other trans woman who has been rejected by their family and friends, deserve to not feel sad and traumatised at a time when the rest of us are stuffing our faces with doritos and drinking Italian wine. The fact that they can't experience the same happy winter festival as the rest of us is what is wrong with our society, and it is wrong because of people like us. And we can change that, and we should. So. Y'know. Let's.

And yes, it is Joshua ben Joseph's alleged birthday and here I am blogging about gender issues and the kyriarchy. I do indeed have no life. But I do have Barolo, doritos, DVDs, the freedom to express who and what I am, family that loves me and a safe roof over my head. And I'm off to enjoy those things now, because I'm privileged enough to have them. Good night.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

What on earth is going on?

Two things happened today which freaked me out a bit. The first thing was finding a small metal ball-bearing apparently left randomly on a shelf in my section of the bookshop, next to a copy of Trickster Makes This World by Lewis Hyde. This probably seems like a fairly quotidian thing to have happen, but it seems a bit perturbing if you know what the last book I read was.

The other slightly odd thing that happened was that my Blackberry apparently only detected that it had a memory card in it tonight when I went to take a photo of myself demonstrating the size to which a hole in one of my socks had grown:

The weird thing is, I've taken photos on the thing before, and it's always just saved them to the device memory, not a media card. I didn't even know there was a bloody media card in the thing in the first place. So - what the hell happened? Was the card always there, and did the thing just fail to detect it 'til now? Or did somebody sneak into the staff room, break into my bag, and install one? And if it's the latter - couldn't you have installed one with more than 1 gig of memory on it, man? That'll hardly be room for anything.

I suppose it must have been there all along, which is both a shame and a blessing. A shame because if I'd known I had a memory card all along I'd have downloaded the 7digital app, a blessing because if I had done I would have bankrupted myself buying Florence and the Machine tracks by now. Indeed do many things come to pass.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

The Human Rights Celebration Gig

This gig isn't about me performing. I'm doing one poem and that's it. It's about giving the audience an opportunity to write something, themed around this prompt:

'I'm afraid to say...'

and that's it. The idea is that in some societies people are afraid to say things because of government repression, but in our society many other kinds of repression are in play. The idea of the piece is to give people a safe space to say things they would say, but they're afraid of reprisals from bigoted, ignorant people.

Over the course of the day, we'll be asking people to write down what they're afraid to say, and stick it to a wall in Newcastle Central Library. At the end of the day I'll take down these notes, collate them, and work them into a poem we'll publish on the web (and elsewhere, if possible).

I'd like to give people who follow me on the net a chance to be part of this too. Imagine you're completing that sentence: 'I'm afraid to say...' followed by what you fear to say. Even if it's 'nothing'. (I would love it if it was nothing, and can think of at least one person who'd give that as her answer). Then, once you've decided how you'd complete that sentence, either reply in the comments below or tweet me at @adamfishpoet on Twitter with the result. If you tweet me, add the hasthtag #imafraidtosay to make sure I see what you're getting at, and also the hashtag #anon if you'd like not to be credited for the final published version of the piece. If you add your line in the comments, mark it either 'anonymous' or 'creditted' as desired.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to people taking part. Updates here soon on how this gig goes, and then we begin the countdown to the next gig which, as much as I fear it, has to come some time. See you soon.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Speak Fear

Don't worry that I haven't said too much about the Human Rights Celebration Gig at Newcastle Library on Saturday (it's at 3pm, by the way, if anyone wants to come). Work is happening on it, a few things have changed, even since the Baynham Test post the other day, and I'm now a lot more confident that It'll go better than originally planned. One of the things that excites me about this thing is that there's very little performing involved in it. I will have a video of one piece on before I perform, I will do one number myself, then I have a little presentation to give (with accompanying Powerpoint slides - oh yes!) explaining the point of the thing, and then - it's over to the audience. It's their gig, not mine. They'll make it or break it, and I hope to god they make it, because I want to give whoever turns up a chance to speak their fears, to feel brave, even for a moment, in the hope that that bravery might be something they then carry with them elsewhere in their lives.

And part of that is because, at this point in my life, I'm absolutely goddam terrified. And the thing that I'm terrified of is my next gig. I don't know when that is yet, and in a way part of me doesn't want to know, and part of me wants to delay it indefinitely for exactly that reason. Go on hiatus. Leave the scene.

Those of you who read this blog and are aware of my previous work will have observed that the stuff I've been posting on here recently has taken a slightly different turn. I'm not playing to the gallery anymore; I'm not doing funny poems about Meat Loaf and rhyme-heavy freestyle-derived numbers that show off my performance chops. I'm trying to be real. I'm trying to write something true about myself and the way I see the world. Something that doesn't depend on audience approval, or indeed the provocation of audience disapproval: something I can stand by and say this is me, this is how I see it and let the chips fall where they may. This is the whole reason I pulled the plug on publishing All Haste is from the Devil back in July, and, as much as that decision hurt a lot of good people and made me look like a ridiculous primadonna, I'm more certain than ever that it was the right one, because forcing myself to be real, to get back to a writing process that's about describing what I experience in the most honest way I can, has resulted in poems that I can be proud of. You've seen some of them on this blog. But here's the thing: you haven't seen the half of it.

There are things I've written recently, good, well-crafted poems I've spent a lot of time on, which ripped out my heart and stamped it to a smear. Poems the writing of which literally left me in a crying heap on the floor of my room. And I am afraid to read these poems in public, afraid to submit them for publication, because as good as they are (and I believe them to be among the best I've ever written), I know that to put these things out there will change my world in ways I'm not prepared for. I'll go further: I'm afraid that putting these things out there could break me, and that if they do, there's nothing that'll put me back together.

And I'm afraid most of all because - and here, really, is the thing - they want to be read. They want to be published. The next time I send work out for publication, these poems will be among it. The next time I perform, these poems will be the stuff I read.

And that's what scares me. That's what wakes me in the middle of the night, what makes me stop and sit back on my haunches on an afternoon walk, what makes me think a million times a day about announcing that Saturday's gig will be my last one. Because I don't know if I can face the gig after that.

Because: after I invite Saturday's audience to find the strength to speak their fears, I have to find the strength to speak my own.

Friday, 4 December 2009

On Looking Back Into the Mosh Pit

Off to a party tonight and may not be in easy reach of a computer for a couple of days because I'm off to another party the next day - I am so rock 'n' roll. So to tide you over, here's the poetry video I've been working on over the last couple of days.

The Baynham Test

I've been working on the text bit of the interactive poetry session I'm going to do for the Human Rights Day gig at Newcastle Library on the 12th of December. This is really weird because I thought there wouldn't be a lot of writing and me talking, and so far the combined intro, links etc comes to three pages. I'll be trimming, that's for sure. But one of the things I've been thinking about, one of the challenges, is this: how do we keep an event in which we invite people to collaborate and write a poem based on the idea of saying that which they're afraid to say, and stop it descending into an 'I'm afraid to say I hate the Muzzies but I can't because of political correctness gawn maaaaaad' hate-fest?

And then it occurred to me that you can't fake fear. Here's part of the text I've written up for the presentation bit, addressing this issue, and proposing an idea of how we can assess the risk-value of peoples' free speech:

There’s an idea, widespread in this country, that defending the rights of minorities to live without fear is bullying and a curtailment of free speech. And that’s crap. It’s a lie perpetuated by liars who have a vested interest in keeping it going to sell newspapers, and that’s it. First of all, from the earliest time free speech and free expression were recognised as rights it has always been understood that they don’t include the right to make life hell for vulnerable minorities, or to spread hatred and prejudice. And for another, how often do you see the same boring people droning on about ‘political correctness’ and how it tries to silence them, week in, week out? If there really was a group trying to silence them, don’t you think they’d, well, be silent? It’s a crock and most people know it. Don’t believe what you read in the Mail or the Sun: only 19% of people trust those papers, and with good reason.

I propose a test we can use, on ourselves and anyone who pretends to be standing up for free speech: let’s call it the Ian Baynham test, because he’s the example I’m going to use. When he challenged three thugs about the homophobic abuse they were spouting, he knew he was taking a genuine risk, that the situation could turn violent and he could get hurt. In that situation he would have genuinely, emotionally, felt afraid. He would shake and feel the blood draining from his bodily core to his extremities as his fight-or-flight reflex kicked in. Now, when Richard Littlejohn sits in his mansion in Florida and writes another nonsense column about political correctness, or when Tony Horne says in that hilarious way of his that ‘we’re not allowed to say ‘gypsy’ anymore’, do you think they feel like that? Do you think they feel that they run a genuine risk in what they’re saying? No. That’s the test. Fear is an emotion. It can’t be faked. So – what real things, things which actually exist, try to frighten us out of expressing ourselves?

I’ll give you an example from my own experience. As some of you may have worked out, I’m not exactly the most macho guy going. An alpha male is not me. And because of this I fear taking the bus late at night, because I know there are people who object to the way I express myself in terms of my appearance and body language, and there’s a risk that these people might beat me up. And that, genuinely, makes me feel afraid. I’m vulnerable in that situation. I feel that tightness in the stomach, that lightening in the head, that urge to run away. And that’s how I know that’s a genuine fear, not one I’ve made up.

What things make you afraid to speak up, readers?

Theology Geek Humour

Thanks to Mitch Benn for writing this brilliant paragraph, quite possibly the funniest thing I've read in months:

As is often the case with sequels, The New Testament was not as universally well received as its predecessor with many staunch fans of the original refusing to accept it as part of the “canon” and preferring to ignore it completely (see also Highlander II: The Quickening).

Comparing the first major schism of the Abrahamic religions to the reaction of Highlander fans to that film's dire sequel is a stroke of genius, which reminds me I should try to make time to listen to more episodes of The Now Show.