Monthly Archives: October 2010

the (mis)spoken word.

“A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.

I say it just
Begins to live
That day.”
–Emily Dickinson

I feel the way about reading my writing aloud to others as I do about musicals.

I love music, I love movies (or plays), but never the twain shall meet.

Similarly, I love writing and from years of being in bands, I have no problem being on stage–just not to perform my writing. Even in my weekly writer’s workshop–a supposedly “safe space” of like-minded and supportive students–if I’m asked to read the simplest of in-class writing exercises out loud my pulse quickens. Heart racing, breath shortening, I rush through the words like I’m late for a train and have somewhere else to be.

But yesterday I had the chance to attend a session on poetry performance with poet Kayo Chingonyi. To our small group of seven, he shared that performance was what led him to write poetry in the first place, drawing him in with the rhythms and rhymes that lend themselves to subtle actions and expressions. Before he went on, though, he performed one of his poems–and I sat mesmerized. The words flowed out like the smoothest of streams, like a spell being cast with hand motions–gestures that didn’t seem forced or out of place, but simply as if they were as much a part of the poem as the words themselves. Take a look at Kayo reading another one of his poems, “Shuffle”:

The ideas we covered in Kayo’s session were things I don’t normally give a lot of thought to, but I’m starting to reconsider. Watching him perform, I was struck by the artistry he conveyed, by the beauty of words at work. As Kayo himself said,

  • Reading without feeling isn’t productive.
  • At its heart, literature is a human act–if you get away from that, it just becomes a product.
  • The key to performance is presence–be present, look around, and get a feel for your audience.

Above all, it should be natural–it isn’t something to be contrived or acted out:

“There is something really beautiful about just talking, writing, etc. They are all just forms of communicating. When you do a reading, think, ‘This is a story I’m going to tell you and this is just me telling you the story.’

Along these sames lines, as Joshy Washington writes in an article for the Matador Network on “How to Read Your Writing Out Loud,” speaking my work aloud as I write is not only a great way to catch grammatical mistakes and awkward phrasing, but to think about the drama of it–is the dialogue realistic? are my images arresting? does tension rise and fall at the right moments? And when it comes to performing at a reading, Washington says:

“Understand that your audience wants to hear you read. Don’t apologize, don’t shrink back or rush forward to hasten the end. Instead take control and steer the story with your measured reading like a captain at sea. You have the benefit of knowing how the story resolves itself, use that knowledge to build suspense and punctuate certain moments…There is something enthralling about the feeling of being led confidently through a story, of trusting the reader to bring you with them.”

I hold out hope that one day my nerves won’t get the best of me…after all, it’s really just about the story, isn’t it?

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old friends and festivals: sunday in london.

“A farewell is necessary before you can meet again. And meeting again, after moments or lifetimes is certain for those who are friends.” –Richard Bach

It’s been almost two years since I went to Paris. As I wasn’t working during my last few weeks in London, the subsidized trip offered by the International Student House’s Travel Club was too good to pass up: just £120 to cover round-trip Eurostar tickets, three nights’ accommodation in an actual hotel (read: not a hostel!), admission to the Eiffel Tower, the Lourve, Palace of Versailles, a three-day Metro travel card, and a €12 contribution to a group meal…glazed duck and potatoes au gratin anyone? When I tried to add it all up, I think it came to something like £400.

The only catch was having to go along as a group of about fifteen strangers (and in our case, all girls)–certainly an interesting premise for a trip. And given the fact that about two-thirds were of Asian backgrounds, you can imagine how often we stopped to take the requisite peace-sign-and-pose photos on our visit to the Eiffel Tower. But as usually happens in such situations, you end up leaving with people you can actually call good friends. For me, there was Tanja, a Slovenian who at the time was earning her Master’s, and Ermiza, a Sri Lankan law student. After we returned from Paris, Tanja and I even got together at the British Library and embarked on a literary tour of London, paying homage to William Blake’s grave and past residences of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and the like.

But it’s a testament to the modern age of travel and communication that on Sunday, we were able to reunite–some 21 months later–under the auspices of the 2010 Bloomsbury Festival. Tanja had managed to secure tickets to a reading for not only Ermiza and myself, but a few others as well. On a brilliantly sunny afternoon, we met up at the Art Workers Guild, an organization of architects and “makers” dating from the 1880s whose office in Queen Square reflects the talent and craftsmanship associated with the Guild.

The reading itself, an event titled “Deception,” was the best I’ve been to yet. It featured members of Future Perfect, a small group of poets, novelists and even a songwriter who have been together for about ten months and host themed joint readings across London–readings that are original, witty and entertaining. Their pieces ranged from a novel excerpt about a man who’s racked up half a million pounds on his corporate charge card and impulsively buys a £4,000 mobile phone; a short story about a psychotic lover who binds and gags her boyfriend when he packs his bags to move out; and a song called “Sweet Little Creeper”–no explanation necessary. What impressed me most of all, though, was simply the life and vibrancy each writer conveyed. These weren’t dry readings, but a true performance, engaging and insightful–something you’re not always guaranteed to find at such events.

After the reading, we moved to a nearby cafe and pulled a couple of tables together, discussing Tanja’s upcoming trip to New York for research. She’s currently working on her PhD from SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies) concentrating on the history of Islamic ceramic and glass art and apparently, the largest glass museum in the world is in Corning, New York. Who knew? “I have no choice but to go and take pictures,” Tonja explained. Leave it to a doctoral degree to allow such specificity.

As we sipped on coffee and hot chocolate, I marvelled at what a group we were–Tanja and her Indian friend Akhil, working on his PhD in Indian queer literature; Alena from Belarus, in her final year of doctoral studies in medieval Islamic history; Ermiza, now practising constitutional law back in Sri Lanka, and her reticent younger brother, whose name I unfortunately missed. Our conversation was fascinating to follow, from Ermiza telling us about her latest case concerning prostitution, to Tonja and Akhil’s account of their recent “ghost tour” through the South Bank area, where they visited the Cross Bones Graveyard, home to the Outcast Dead.

We didn’t linger long, however. A performance was due to take place on Lamb Conduit Lane (named for its purpose in another time, when goods were shipped down its canal to Holborn. It’s since been filled in and paved over, just another London sidestreet.) We arrived to find a community dinner in progress, organized in honor of the festival’s end. White tents and tables had been set up down the street, strings of exposed bulbs strung down the middle and colorful flags zig-zagging their way across the lights. Indian food steaming with spices was being served in another tent, curried potatoes and rice dished into brown paper boxes like presents.

In the end, the performance was rained out, but a rainbow that appeared over Bloomsbury Square pleased us all the same. We walked back to the station along damp sidewalks, golden sunlight glinting off windows. I thought about how quickly Russell Square is becoming one of my favorite areas in London, and also how much I love reconnecting with old friends–and realizing as always, the world can be as small or large as you make it.

"Deception" reading at the Art Workers Guild.

Threshold of the Art Workers Guild.

Community Dinner at the Bloomsbury Festival.

Divine...

A little welcome to festival-goers on Lamb Conduit Street.

Ermiza and I in January of 2009 at the Palace of Versailles...

...and reunited with Tanja in October of 2010!

Totally worth the rain.

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lost: somewhere between liverpool and london.

“Collecting quotes made by railways staff for the late arrival of the train is something of a (minor) British past time and definitely a skill required for any foreigner looking to integrate themselves into English society.” –Stuart Burns, MetalMiner website.

Okay, so I wasn’t exactly lost. But that’s sure what it felt like.

I’d made plans to go up to Liverpool yesterday–strange idea for a day trip, I know, but with London Midlands rail service offering a day’s unlimited travel for only £10, it seemed worthwhile. Who cares if the city is as close to Edinburgh as it is to London, right? I’d looked up train times and felt relatively confident the day would be a shining success.

Getting there was fine, even if it was half an hour later than the timetable said it would be, but when I went to catch the return train, there was no 18:28 departure for London Euston–only an 18:47 that would require me switching trains at both Birmingham and Northampton. By the time we reached London nearly five hours later (nevermind the timetable had assured me it would be half that), I’d missed the last train home. Thus began a Tube journey spanning 24 stops and a half hour bus ride from Richmond to Kingston. When I reached home at 1:15am, I felt as if I’d circumnavigated the globe.

And to think it only took four hours to get to Cologne.

Again, last Thursday, Transport for London’s website told me a bus would come by my flat at 8:11, dropping me off just in time to catch my 8:27 express train to Waterloo. At 8:17, the bus still hadn’t come and I started walking, even though I knew it was a twelve minute walk. And I was right–the train pulled away just as I sprinted up the station stairs, leaving me to catch the 8:32 slow train and arrive at work twenty minutes late, sweaty and stewing with anger. (To anyone who might have seen me storming down the sidewalk, hurling expletives beneath my breath, please accept my most sincere apologies.)

What is your deal? I asked once I got to my desk, sitting myself down on the figurative couch for a good talking to like any parent would to a child in need of some serious chastizing. Are these delays really worth getting that upset over? Then I realized: I have no problem with waiting, with adapting to crazy stopovers and expired timetables–given the circumstances. In Egypt, I watched almost amusedly as what was supposed to be a 10-hour overnight trip from Cairo to Luxor turn into fifteen hours. In Tahiti, I didn’t mind being told to show up an hour early to catch a bus to the other side of the island–even if that meant a 5.30am wake-up call. And in Fiji, I couldn’t have cared less the bus took the long way home–especially when that included a brief detour down the beach.

But I think I expect something different from a country like England–a country whose 2010-11 government budget includes £22 billion for transport. I expect to be able to look up a train timetable or bus schedule on TFL and for said means of transport to both show up and deliver me when it says it will. I expect promptness, directness, and efficiency…but who am I kidding, right? In “Swiss Movement,” a recent article for Lonely Planet Magazine on a Swiss rail journey, Tahir Shah lauds the precision of the country’s train service:

“In most countries, changing trains tends to be a sordid ordeal of waiting and of discomfort. But, as I prepare to board my onward train, I am reminded again that Switzerland is different. This is a land in which rail travel is still a genteel pursuit, one of enjoyment rather than endurance. The station masters are well dressed and courteous, the platforms clean, the efficiency of the system as reliable as a Rolex Oyster Perpetual.”

I wish I could do the same. England, take a hint from the Swiss. It’s no lie your public transport system is in shambles, I just wish it didn’t toy with my sanity so.

View from the sand in Nadi, Fiji.

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in defense of books.

“I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.” –Anna Quindlen

“I find television to be very educating.  Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book.” –Groucho Marx

If there’s one thing my university has been great for so far is the number of extracurricular opportunities there are–readings, “Writers in Context” talks, masterclasses, workshops–you name it, they’ve arranged it. And not only have I had the chance to hear accomplished authors talk about the craft of creative writing, but I’m even able to stray outside my own concentration and attend workshops put on by the Journalism and Publishing departments, disciplines equally connected to my writing aspirations.

In the past week, I’ve had the chance to attend two lectures: one by Andy Bull on “The iPhone and Mobile Journalism,” and the other, tonight, by Nicholas Jones of Strathmore Publishing titled “Goodbye Gutenberg?”

Bull began his talk on the importance of having a “mobile presence,” because, increasingly, that’s where your audience is. He spoke of Web 3.0–the Web of Connectedness. Web 1.0 was focused on commerce, i.e. big sites like Amazon and eBay. Web 2.0, which apparently we’re still in, is all about community, thus the explosion of social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter. But things are leading to Web 3.0, which will bring everything together. At the present moment, we go one place for commerce, one for community, and one for content. This won’t be the case soon…or so Bull says. I don’t even own a smart phone, so I feel like I have relatively little to say on this, but basically he hit on things like intelligent search engines learning your browsing habits and such.

Tonight, Jones asked the question: Is printing technology just a 500-year blip in the history of communication? As someone who founded his own publishing house–not to mention starting a business printing flyers when he was just 12 years old–he’s obviously interested in issues concerning the future of physical books, the rise of the e-Book being the most pressing.

Both talks were interesting, discussing the ever-growing world of new media and just how traditional book publishing fits into it all. I’m definitely open to it and would like to think I’m not a total Luddite, but I’ve yet to buy into the iRevolution of reading. I saw the term “iBookstore” the other day in an Apple newsletter and cringed, nearly throwing my laptop out the window.

Which is where I think I draw the line in this whole issue. Jones played us a CNN interview with techie Nicholas Negroponte, who says, in a disgustingly confident manner, that physical books will not exist in five years. He even says that rather than handing out actual books to children in some of the world’s poorest areas, his organization–One Laptop per Child–gives children a laptop with 100 books on it. One hundred laptops per village equals 10,000 books. Obviously, I get the point, but it still pains me to think of books as devices. How can you properly get lost in the alternate world it offers you if you’re always worrying about your battery power and when you need to charge up next?

In a way, I guess I feel the same way about books as I do about Polaroids or film photography in general. It’s the tangibility of them, the ability to hold one in your hand and escape into it, and the more they become outdated and replaced by digital mediums, the more I’ll defend them. I’ve been checking lots of books out from the library lately but the other day, I finally had a chance to read a book I’d actually bought off Amazon. I forgot how it could be, how it’s nearly a religious experience–being able to mark it up, get a pencil out and underline my favorite lines, circle favorite words, scribble and scratch ‘I LOVE THIS’ in the margins, dog-ear a page where I left off. I read an author recently who said she’ll do nothing of the kind–she views books as a kind of sacred document not to be marred. For me, however, books are mine to be marked. To take ownership of. To re-open five years after I first read it and see what jumped out at the person I was then.

And so I understand completely when Anna Quindlen writes in the New York Times about the moment her eldest son first finished reading The Phantom Tollbooth:

“You had only to see this boy’s face when he said “I finished it!” to know that something had made an indelible mark upon him. I walked him back upstairs with a fresh book, my copy of “A Wrinkle in Time,” Madeleine L’Engle’s unforgettable story of children who travel through time and space to save their father from the forces of evil. Now when I leave the room, he is reading by the pinpoint of his little reading light, the ship of his mind moving through high seas with the help of my compass. Just before I close the door, I catch a glimpse of the making of my self and the making of his, sharing some of the same timber.”

We should never take that away from anyone. I don’t care if they’re big, bulky, and a pain to travel with…books aren’t going anywhere.

Not on my watch, at least.

"All the characters are fictitious in the bookstore Henry Miller calls a wonderland of books."

 

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a city within a city.

Conurbation: noun–an extended urban area, typically consisting of several towns merging with the suburbs of a central city.”

I learned a new word yesterday: conurbation. It’s one of those words that sounds tricky, but when broken down to its roots actually makes a lot of sense: the Latin words con, “together,” and urbs, “city,” combined with a neutral suffix, –ation. It was Scotsman Patrick Geddes who first coined the term in his 1915 book, Cities in Evolution. Although primarily a biologist, Geddes is known also for his work in urban planning. He discussed the way new technologies–such as electric power and motorized transport–were essentially making it possible for big cities to be assembled rather like a jigsaw puzzle, hooking up with their surrounding suburbs and growing together.

Think of New York City, otherwise known as the Tri-State Region. Thirty counties stretching across New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania to form a metropolitan area of almost twenty-two million people. Yikes. That’s the total population of Australia. Or Romania. Or the Côte d’Ivoire…choose your favorite point of comparison.

I was in the St. Paul’s area of London yesterday following an interview I had near the South Bank. As I walked down Newgate Street, passing by the London Stock Exchange and the offices of major banks and investment firms, I wasn’t sure what there were more of–black suits or black cabs ferrying the suits around. Gratefully, I was still wearing the suit I’d worn to my interview. I tried to imagine myself blending into the “we-mean-business” crowd in my usual attire as of late–dress, boots and leather bomber jacket.

As I approached my destination–the Central Criminal Courts of Old Bailey–I was distracted by the bollards along the sidewalk, short iron posts whose tops had been painted red and white. Near the bottom of each post, a coat of arms was placed above the words, “City of London.” When I got home later, I started sleuthing, curious about the choice of color on the bollards. Wikipedia didn’t disappoint: red and white are the colors of the City of London…an entity I soon learned is not to be confused with the city of London.

Long before London was conurbated (or is that an inappropriate conjugation of conurbation?) it was just the City of London. Nowadays, the little space this historic area occupies within Greater London is often referred to as “the City,” or on maps, simply as “City.” But the City’s own boundaries have hardly changed since the Middle Ages and indeed its city status has remained intact since the dawn of the earth, practically.

Don’t let its size deceive you–it may measure in at just over one square mile (giving it yet another nickname of the Square Mile), but in 2008, the City alone accounted for 4% of the country’s GDP–$87 billion dollars. That’s one productive mile–talk about getting your money’s worth. And as London’s financial center–which explains the army of suited-up citizens–it rivals New York for the title of financial capital of the world, with over 500 banks having an office within its bounds.

Although the numbers are impressive, what I was more interested in were the peculiarities surrounding the City’s governance. It’s run by the City of London Corporation and even has its own Lord Mayor, giving proof to its “unique political status, a legacy of its uninterrupted legacy as a corporate city since the Anglo-Saxon period” (thanks, Wikipedia). Even 108 livery associations which began in medieval times as guilds and trade associations still exist today, although their function is largely ceremonial. “Ceremonial” is a word that surfaces often in descriptions of the City–with all manner of roles and positions no longer particularly relevant, and yet kept in place nonetheless. It’s like no one wants to break the magic.

So who knew such a microcosm existed? A world all of its own with connections and traditions stretching back into the centuries? As I walked the City’s streets, from the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral down Watling towards Mansion House, I wondered if London will ever cease to amaze me, if there will ever be an end to what there is to learn and find…

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thinking before i write.

In prose, the worst thing you can do with words is to surrender to them.” — George Orwell

 

Theory.

The word has a ring of the classroom about it–the act of learning and not doing. That’s how the Greeks themselves defined it–the word theoria meaning “a looking at, viewing, beholding”–and as Wikipedia says, it’s more about “contemplation or speculation, as opposed to action.” I remember many a piano lesson having to go over my theory homework when all I wanted to do was start in on the actual pieces I’d practised. This didn’t end when I started taking music classes in college. MUSI 331–Music Theory I–often left me wondering how obscure modes and diatonic scales applied at all to the pop songs I wanted to write.

I find myself in a similar predicament now that I’ve started my master’s at Kingston. Although my Tuesday evening Writer’s Workshop is everything I’m used to–in which everyone takes turns reading and critiquing each other’s writing–my Thursday afternoon lecture leaves me slightly more unsure of how it relates to travel writing: Critical Writing for Creative Writers. The very words–“critical” and “creative”–seem almost opposed to each other. Instead of reading up on current trends in travel writing, I’ve been spending every Wednesday reading theory. Liberal humanism, structuralism, deconstructionism, poststructuralism, the list goes on and my brain begins to shake at anything ending in “ism.” What exactly does this have to do with me, I feel like asking selfishly…

Thankfully, though, we’ve also been assigned an equally theoretical but slightly more interesting essay to read every week by famous writers I’m more familiar with–Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot and, this week, George Orwell. My borderline obsession with 1984 meant I was looking forward to reading some of his non-fiction essays–which, I shamefully admit, I didn’t realize even existed until this class. “Politics and the English Language” deals with Orwell’s concern over the demise of writing and our [mis]use of words and metaphors… and to think that this was written in 1946, well before the age of texting, tweeting, and instant messaging.

Did you know George Orwell is actually the pen name used by a man named Eric Arthur Blair?

However tempting it is to simply copy-and-paste the essay in its entirety here for you, I’ll refrain. The essential thing to get in Orwell’s argument is that writers have stopped thinking about the words they use. Great writing has been hijacked by dead metaphors, meaningless words, pretentious diction–all adding up to a kind of verbal fluff that, despite its many-syllabled words and impressive-sounding turns of phrase, actually doesn’t get around to saying much at all:

“The concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed. Prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”

Ouch, right? He goes on:

“Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”

The problem with this, Orwell says, is that this kind of writing is easy–both for the reader and the writer. It will take an astute, disciplined writer to think deliberately before using any word or phrase to sort of “take back” writing for the purposes of great literature and effective communication. To help this happen, he gives four questions a “scrupulous writer” should ask of themselves:

1. What am I trying to say?
2. What words will express it?
3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

All in all, a challenging read, but the amazing thing was that no sooner had I finished Orwell’s essay when I came across an article by David Miller on Matador’s Travelers Notebook titled “Notes on Codification and Commodification in Travel Writing.” While the suffixes in the title were almost too much for my theory-saturated brain to handle at the time, the article proved well worth the extra mental energy. Miller starts by discussing codified language, which is, just like Orwell’s tacked-together phrases, “interchangeable”:

“Codification begins when a narrator suggests something without actually declaring anything or referring to anything that exists in concrete reality…That’s the whole point of codified language–instead of actually reporting unique perceptions of unique places or experiences, writers are essentially relying on (as well as propagating) a common frame of reference.”

Orwell couldn’t have said it better himself. Wikipedia defines codification (in terms of linguistics) as “the process of standardizing and developing a norm for language.” Could you think of anything worse for travel writing? Prose that is nothing more than standard? Prose that utilizes only clichés and banal descriptions that have been there and done that?

Obviously, I’ve had to truncate much of both arguments. Orwell’s ultimately links to the current state of politics and how politicians’ need to hide the ugly truth behind flowery, overdrawn language has aided the decline of language. Miller’s connects to the commodification of travel writing and how the hackneyed phrases of many articles end up sounding like nothing more than the stuff of travel agency sales pitches.

But, as I commented on the Matador site, it was such a coincidence to have come across Miller’s article right after the Orwell essay. Uncanny, even–a serendipitous literary discovery that seemed to assure me, maybe all this theory stuff isn’t as arbitrary as I think. Honesty, clarity, and fresh, vivid metaphors are as crucial in great travel writing as they are in any other genre and Orwell’s advice rings true even today, sixty years later:

Be creative.
Keep it fresh.
Say what you mean.
Think before you write.
And above all else…

Make every word count.

Orwell at work.

 

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looking up in london.

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” — Samuel Johnson

Well, it happened again. Just like my walk through Surbiton last Monday, I took too many pictures while exploring central London yesterday. I was “on assignment”–by which I mean I’ve got an idea for an article I want to write on London’s top five free traditions–and was forced to fight my way through the crowds to Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, etc. When I went to write a post this morning on my walk yesterday, I found myself with well over twenty photos I wanted to include. Yeah…not exactly practical.

So I thought, following the positive reception of last Monday’s video, why not make another audio slideshow? It’s good practice for me on working in iMovie and it’s actually a lot of fun putting the whole thing together–picking out the photos, writing up the script, and somehow making it all work. So here it is, the good, the bad, and the entertaining when it comes to [not] blending in with London’s tourist scene…

 

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