Blog North Awards shortlisted

Blog North Awards shortlisted

Friday, 29 May 2015

The Last Yossarian Poetry Challange

Because today is the final day of my poem-a-day challenge using Yossarian to generate ideas, I thought I'd make my search term 'end'. Each day this week, my searches have generated a lot of images of people and I've tended to ignore those, preferring to write about objects or landscapes instead.

Today, I was determined to use a human image, so I settled on a picture of people clapping and took the notion of applause as my theme. I'm not sure how Bono found his way into the final poem, but this week has been full of surprises.

The End

It usually ends with applause, even if
you don't know what you're clapping for,
and perhaps you were taught that every time
you clap an angel gets its wings, or perhaps
you just think of Bono, on stage in Glasgow,
hushing the crowd, bringing his hands together,

telling them each time I clap, a child in Africa 
dies, and that voice from the front yelling
well, stop f*cking doing it then, and the joke is
that every time you clap, nothing happens,
nothing travels round the room
and everyone holds it for a second,
moving the air, breaking the silence.

I've had a really interesting week using Yossarian to generate some new, creative ideas - I've been challenged to work much more quickly than I normally would and I've enjoyed starting the day with a range of thought-provoking images. It has made me think about how I could use the search engine in more random ways, by picking words from a newspaper for example, or by basing a piece of writing on someone else's shared ideas. I look on the pieces I've written this week as a kind of creative notebook, a few jottings, something that everyone could start the day with.

If you fancy using Yossarian for inspiration too, you can sign up to their mailing list to be sent a new word or idea every day - you just sign yourself up here. I'm sure I'll be using it in the future whenever I want to think a bit more laterally. Thanks to the Yossarian team for a great week!

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Yossarian poetry challenge: day 3

Today's word was 'aspirational', suggested by Geoffrey Mann by e-mail. My search produced lots of images of hopeful or happy people and, more unusually, lots of mechanical equipment. I was drawn to an image of a single green plant growing out of rubble, but the idea of the industrial crept into this short poem too.


I didn't want a garden.
I wanted a rectangle of dirt
where the city runs out,
a concrete flowerbed
where I could place 

invisible seeds

come back each day
to see what I'd grown -
a new absence in the skyline,
a bit more space,

how the first townsfolk
must have stood here
planting their best hopes,
watching the square buildings
climb towards the sun.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Yossarian poetry challenge: day 2 - a dog called Tschingel

Yesterday, I asked for ideas for today's search term and Andrew Mark Bedell on Twitter suggested 'serendipity'. I typed the word into Yossarian and, out of all the images that came up, the one I kept fixing on was an image of a small, white and brown dog standing in a field. Perhaps I was drawn to it because of my own dog, a blonde whippet called Charlie. Perhaps it was the possibilities of the field, the open grass that appealed to me. Or perhaps it was just....serendipity.

But the real serendipity happened on the train as I was reading 'Women on the Rope' by Cicely Williams, a detailed account of 'The Feminine Share of Mountain Adventure'. On page 52, I came across this passage:

"No apology need be made for including among the outstanding women mountaineers of this period a lady who climbed on all fours. This was Tschingel, the faithful bitch who for nine years accompanied Meta Breevort and Coolidge on their adventures in the Alps, earning for the latter the description: 'The young American who climbs with his aunt and his dog'. She became as famous as any human climber of her time."

Who am I to argue with serendipity? Today's poem is dedicated to the famous mountaineering beagle.


She didn't ask to climb a mountain
but the mountains came to her -
huge flanks, like beasts to chase
and never catch. She had a ring
round her neck for the rope to loop through,
four tiny leather boots she kicked off
as she ran. When she died, her master
hung the ridge of her best collar
from his door, ageing
the way hills do.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Yossarian poetry challenge: day 1

This morning marks the first of my four days of the Yossarian poetry challenge. Each day, I'll be typing a search term into creative engine Yossarian (which aims to come up with novel pairings of ideas) and writing a short poem in response to one of the images I find.

Because I'm working from my house today, the first word that came to mind was 'home'. I typed this into the search engine. A lot of the images that Yossarian retrieved were cosy family scenes, or interesting views. But my attention was caught by something stranger - a white square in a brown frame (in the top left hand corner of the photograph, here).


Home is a blank square
inside a solid, wooden frame.

A canvas, white as magnolia,
pale as your fear and square

like an envelope, missing
an address. You stare into it

every day, invent the scene:
arrange three dining chairs,

put down a single, patterned rug.
You could make your home

anywhere. You could hold
the frame out, take imaginary

photographs. You could peer
straight through it, into it,

pretending its a mirror, pretending
you like what you see.

Friday, 22 May 2015

The Yossarian Poetry Challenge

Earlier this year, I took part in a discussion for Advertising Week Europe about augmented creativity, debating whether new technologies can enhance creative acts or whether artists should consider them a threat. During the panel, I was introduced to the concept of Yossarian Lives - a new search engine designed to help people make unusual links and associations. Whereas traditional internet search engines produce popular results (showing you what everyone else has said about a topic), Yossarian returns diverse and unexpected results that share loose associations to the search term. The idea is that these results help you think about your topic in new ways and generate new ideas.

But does it work? Could it be useful to someone producing a new piece of music or visual art or writing a new poem? I've decided to find out.

Next week, I'm going to be looking at the connections between search engine technologies and creativity by setting myself a challenge: can a piece of technology help me to write new poems? Can there be some kind of dialogue between a search engine and a piece of creative writing?

Starting on Tuesday, I'll write a new poem every day for four days, based on a search term entered into Yossarian. Each poem will be a response to one of the images that Yossarian gives me from my search. If you would like to be involved, you could suggest some search terms for me to use and I'll select from my favourite suggestions. Or you could even set yourself your own poetic challenge with Yossarian and enter your own search terms into the website, writing a new poem or piece of creative prose in response to the images you get.

All the poems will bes posted here on the blog next week, so watch this space.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

For 'poem' read 'pie'

On Monday, I found myself in a room of strangely geometric red and white chairs, on a lit stage, grappling with interesting questions I'm not sure we'll ever know the answers to - how does metaphor work in the brain? Could a machine ever write the 'perfect' poem? Are computers 'other' or are they part of our extended mind? I was taking part in a fascinating debate on augmented creativity for Advertising Week Europe, chaired by the wonderful Damian Barr (journalist and author of 'Maggie and Me'). I was joined by Juliette Kristensen (Design Historian & Researcher at Goldsmiths and the RCA), Lee Ramsay (Head of Innovation at Initiative UK) and J.Paul Neeley (Co-Founder and CEO of Yossarian Lives).

Yossarian Lives is named after the anti-hero of Joseph Heller's Catch 22, because it is an internet search engine designed to broaden our searches and the connections we make between ideas rather than narrowing them in the way conventional search engines do (the 'catch 22' being that search engines help us access knowledge but also predict limit the parameters of our searches). By contrast, Yossarian Lives is a metaphorical search engine. Its algorithms return results that are disparate, but potentially metaphorically related to the user's query. These results are intended to encourage creative thinking and diversity of thought, divergent rather than convergent approaches.

Could a programme like Yossarian Lives help a poet to produce a new poem? That was one of the questions I was asked to consider on stage on Monday. On the face of it, the prospects might seem encouraging. I've often talked about how my poems come from the convergence of ideas that might at first seem unrelated, one idea or mood or thought colliding with another, a theme that might at first seem unrelated. In my book 'Division Street', I have a poem called 'Common Names' that came from an unusual connection between animal species named after celebrities and a tender moment watching a meteor shower in the Lake District. Could something like Yossarian help to speed up these metaphorical connections?

On Monday, I sounded a note of caution. The important thing for me when I'm writing a new poem is that these strange convergences take time. A lot of time. I often carry an idea round in my head for months before I know what I want to connect it with. I'll have had many 'false starts' during that time, many ideas for novel connections that would produce a poem that was weird (but not necessarily resonant). As Don Paterson has noted, there's a crucial difference between originality and novelty:

"Poems must speak memorably. Don't confuse originality with novelty. For something to be original, it needs to be already partly known to the readers, otherwise they can't tell if it's original, only that it's weird."

But, of course, I'm open to any possibilities Yossarian Lives could offer writers or creative thinkers of any kind. And I'm excited by the ways it might encourage people to think again about familiar concepts.

Out of curiosity, I typed the word 'poem' into the Yossarian search engine. Amongst other curious images (a button to push, a man holding a newspaper aloft) it came up with a few words made out of pastry. This confirms all my suspicions. A pie is in fact the perfect poem.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

What I don't talk about when I talk about running

Towards the end of last week, I was running along a stippled, windswept beach in St Andrews with Kim Moore before the first readings of the day at StAnza festival. I've been going to StAnza since 2007 and I keep returning for the atmosphere and quality. This year was no exception, with a memorable reading from Alice Notley and Glyn Maxwell on Thursday night and a thought-provoking discussion of motherhood and creativity on Friday.

My mood in St Andrews was heightened by the company of a new book - Matt Haig's Reasons To Stay Alive, an eloquent and bold account of living with depression and anxiety and a reflection on the difficulties of inhabiting a world that thrives on fear.When he was twenty-four Matt nearly killed himself. He was later diagnosed with panic disorder, and eventually recovered. In this book he explores the nature of his mental illness, and discusses depression and anxiety through lists, digressions, memories and conversations with his younger self. To say a book is 'life-affirming' tiptoes close to cliche, but reading Reasons to Stay Alive was exactly that: comforting but startling, all 'calm-down' and 'wake-up' at once.

Throughout the book, Matt dwells on a subject close to my thumping, post-run heart: the value of exercise. The beneficial effects that running can have on mental health are well-documented - as well as enabling the brain to hold on to mood-boosting neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine, running helps you to grow new brain cells in a region linked to the formation of memories. Throughout my life, I've used running to clear my head, banish my anxieties and control my more compulsive tendencies. I was reminded of all these things as I jogged along the coast in St Andrews, glad to be buffeted by the breeze, glad to feel solid in an unfamiliar landscape, not thinking past the next mile (or the next hurdled dog).

Crossing the line after an unexpected marathon win.
But, in a culture where running is also often an intensely measured and logged activity (a heady world of Garmins and Strava, people posting obsessively about their training on social media), I think it's important to acknowledge the pressures of some kinds of running too, the ways that racing yourself and others can be damaging (for some). I've been a runner since I was 13 years old and, in that time, I've competed for my county at a national level, raced everything from sprints to steeplechase on the track, completed 6 marathons and picked up a fair amount of silverware. I've also had periods of time where I've avoided races like the plague, run solely in my own company, set off across the lake district fells just for the thrill of exploring new paths.

If I had to put it simply, I'd say this: running for the hell of it reduces anxiety. Striving to compete as a runner can make some people's anxiety worse (if they aren't careful).

Racing in North Yorks.
I had to leave StAnza early this year - me and my mum drove all night to get back to England in time for me to represent Yorkshire in the World Trials and Inter Counties cross country in Birmingham. By the time I lined up in my blue and white vest, flanked by bodies on either side, I was virus-ridden and sleep-deprived, miles from my best. And I started to be overwhelmed by thoughts I hadn't had in years: I'm not good enough. I'm going to let everyone down. I should have done more mileage. I wish I looked like a real athlete, like all these other women. 

Kinder at Christmas: still my favourite kind of run.
In The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist characterises modern society as a world shaped by the tendencies of the brain's left hemisphere: the tendency to fragment, to compartmentalise, to break things down, to value statistics over metaphor. To me, racing and competing can get a bit like that. But running for joy, for love, for pure sensation remains firmly in the province of McGilchrist's right hemisphere world: it is holistic. It makes you part of a continuum, from the people you run with and the people you greet to the ground under your trainers.

Running gives you purpose, goals, a reason to strive. All those things can be life-saving. But you can always train harder. You can always put more miles in. However fast you go, you could always be faster. The key is knowing when to give yourself a break, when to leave your watch at home for a change and pick your way along White Edge in the early sun, walking when you want to, sprinting when you feel the urge, then standing on a rock and looking back at how far you've come.

I'm going to finish with a poem by my partner (in running, writing and the rest of life) Ben Wilkinson. It touches on things Matt describes so eloquently in his book and describes what it is to strive and wait:

The Catch

For you, the catch wasn't something caught:
not word or contender, attention or fire.
Not the almost-missed train, or the sort
of wave surfers might wait an entire
lifetime for. Not the promise that leaves
the old man adrift for days, his boat
creaking, miles offshore. Nor what cleaves
the heart in two, that left your throat
parched and mute for taking pill
after yellow-green pill, the black-blue
taste the price you paid to kill
the two-parts sadness to one-part anger.
No. The catch was what you could never
let go. It's what you carried, and still do.

'The Catch' is taken from 'For Real', published by Smith / Doorstop.