Sunday, 2 April 2017

My Tranquility, Overthrown by a Piercing Shout and a Recipe

It's the second day of National Poetry Writing Month.  A poem a day for a month.  I am dreading it!

I'm still ill.  Yesterday I couldn't focus on reading a prompt at all, let alone writing a poem.  Today I've made an attempt.  The official prompt was simply to write something inspired by a recipe.  Marie, who runs the Writers' Cafe here is also producing prompts for every day of the month but today I chose the official one.  Mainly because my processing skills weren't up to the unofficial prompt.

Writing very quickly this came out.  I'd apologise for the horrible word but we really did have this recipe and my mum cooked it frequently.  Those biscuits were gorgeous.  Just a shame about the name.

I have searched for a picture of the biscuits.  There were none.  Here instead is a picture of a cake cooked by my mum.  This one went a little bit wrong.  I think too of the time she used self raising flour instead of icing sugar.  And the memorable occasion when turmeric was replaced in a recipe by the same quantity of a hot chilli.

You too would not forget
If your tranquility was overthrown
By a piercing shout of
“Get the nignogs out of the oven.”

Nineteen eighty-one
Brixton was rioting
And deep-down we knew
It was wrong
To mould a dozen nignogs
Into acceptable form.
Baking them until their
Skin was crisp.

That's what the book called them.
Though we laughed at the name
We never thought to change
What was printed, black and white.
Didn't think it racist.
Not properly. It's just a name.
We thought we were free
From the ugly stains of hate.
And we were. Mostly.
At least, partly.

When it came to nignogs,
All we cared about
Was the way that crisp shell
Would break into softly hidden joys.
Sugary oats, magically transmogrified
Into biscuits: Pale, not black beauties.
And our own sensory satisfaction
Purged what we knew of justice.

Until the shout.

My mother on the doorstep
Deeply held in agreeable conversation
With a family from our street.
Immigrants from South London estates.

From shock to shouting to shame.
To a change of name.
To an intentionally mislaid recipe book.
To flapjack friendships.

I am told that my own voice always comes through in my writing.  It's a compliment.  But it got me thinking about my voice.  I look at other people's poetry and I confess I sometimes compare.  I shouldn't, but I do.  They have so many interesting turns of phrase, use long words and imagery that I'm sure is rich.  I struggle with all of those.  As a writer but also as a listener.

I think it's because of the form my autism takes.  Verbal processing can be very hard work for me.  If you say something I have to put a lot of mental energy into understanding you.  And the more complicated it is the harder it is.

In addition, though I know autistic people are meant to be extremely visual people, in many ways I'm not.  We're all meant to be savants who can see a complex scene and draw it from memory.  We're meant to see all our thoughts and have an inner life of pictures.  That's the stereotype and there are autistic people for whom it's true.  I'm not one of them.  In other ways though I'm a bit stereotypical.  I'm not good at metaphor (unless I invent it) so if someone else uses metaphor it takes me time to work out that I'm not meant to be taking them literally.  I can be the same with idiom.  When the metaphor or idiom is unfamiliar it will take me a lot longer.

What that means in practice for performance poetry is that I very often can't keep up.  I just can't and it's possibly not a skill I will ever learn.  Use combinations of long words and I'm lost.  Use fantastic imagery and I'm lost.

If someone reads out their work I can still be trying to process the first line for meaning when they've finished their third line.  Their work might be worthy of a dozen literary awards.  But I'll have missed it.  I hate it that I miss so much of what people read.  Hate it that even if they repeated their performance I'd still miss it.  Unless I had the words before me and had been able to prepare in advance by reading it myself over and over again.

All of which means that part of what is "my voice" is a result of lacking in verbal processing skills.  My voice is simple.  It's often conversational.  It can be playful.  And it will never contain the word "terpsichorean" instead of "dancer".  In short, my written voice is often my spoken voice.  It is me and I don't know how to be another.  Nor do I want to.  Except somehow I'll have to of course when crafting these characters for the eventual novel or perhaps for future excursions into acting.

I write as I would speak it.  I write almost so I can speak it.  I did the same when preaching.  If I'd been ill and presented a fully written sermon to someone else to read out it would have sounded rubbish.  But when I read it the words became a lively language and people felt them.  I wonder if that'll be the case with poems too.

I can imagine the above in my voice.

But what if strangers read it?  What then?

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