February 5


A short while back I referred to 3by3by3, a site devoted to collage-y types of poems. The remit for the poems, which I declined to explain then but which I will now, is this… and I quote:

Pick 3 stories from Google News. Using only words that occur in the first few paragraphs of each story, make a poem with 3 stanzas, 3 lines each, no more than 60 characters per line. The 3-word title should use a word from each story.

I’ve since had a couple of my own tries at this published there; Rupert Loydell is also a frequent contributor.

Over the years I’ve tried collage poems numerous times, but I think you could count on the fingers of a hand the number of poems I’ve made this way that I would regard as successful and which have appeared in magazines or books. Well, maybe two hands, but no more than two hands.

Often I’ve had recourse to found materials, or collage, or other exercises when I’ve been going through a period when unbidden poems are just not happening. Not writer’s block – a phrase that pisses me off, to be honest – but dry periods, nevertheless. The results have usually struck me as uninteresting, and on reflection that’s probably because the necessary driving motive behind the poem has been lacking or mis-directed. What do I mean by the necessary driving motive? For me, I think it’s the simple (sic) desire and pleasure in making a poem that I feel comes from the good part of me, with the usual mix of honesty and enjoyment and wonder and bewilderment and trust in that part of my brain I don’t understand but which clicks into gear when I make (what I think is) a good poem. If I’m doing an exercise to irrigate a dry period, something of those elements is missing, and is replaced by a “must make something” design and small degree of panic which is not so helpful.

The collage poems that I’ve done in the past and which have been successful have, I realise, been written in moments of happiness, or confidence, and periods of buzzing creativity – not when I was dried up and fishing around for ideas.

Which all sounds to me like it makes sense, but nothing in the creative process abides by any guidelines you might like to try and fix. A few months back, after I published some flarf poems here by Sharon Mesmer, I was not writing, and I tried my hand at that method, and came up with a few things which I let sit around for a while then decided they stank. So far, my theory (such as it is) holds. But then instead of throwing them away, one day when I was back in gear as it were, I took these smelly poems and completely reworked them, threw out a lot of the flarf principles and stuck my own words and phrases in various places, and came up with some poems I really liked. I’m not even sure now which bits of the poems are the found things and which bits are my own. And those poems, which started out in somewhat rotten circumstances but were finished in good ones, I think are very ok and will, as it happens, be appearing in a magazine online in the not too distant future.

So, as always, I just don’t get this writing business. It’s full of surprises. Except I know that for me I have to be in a happy and positive frame of mind to write what I think are good poems. Get me low or tired and I may as well go and try and build a wall as make a poem. As for the poems at 3by3by3, I’m happy they are out there; they are not exercises or throwaways. I got a buzz off doing them and get a buzz off the finished product. I did one that ended up in the waste bin because it was shit, but the two there now I will stand by. And interestingly, the newest one turned out very differently from what I was expecting: I picked some texts that contained positive elements and language, and intended a positive, upbeat, even funny poem. And look what happened! Well actually, I’m not sure what happened…… which is why I love this writing business. I love to not know what’s going to happen next.



February 14


I had an e-mail from a friend a few days back with an interesting snippet of information which, I have to admit, made me chuckle. Here's the relevant bit:

I was at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park on Sunday [………] & noticed that they were advertising Simon Armitage as their 2007 Artist in Residence.  (He’s not just a writer anymore, he’s an artist.)  Anyhow, they had a little display table in the gift shop with all his books arranged around a big glass bowl full of … "Simon Armitage Fortune Cookies (50p)" – they apparently contain little gobbets of his poetry-wisdom…… 

Every witty thing I came up with to say at this point I've decided was too obvious, albeit very funny.

(By the way, my apologies for the big time break between posts -- I've been away..... I am back now, until I go away again. It's the New Year holiday here in China, and that's my excuse.)



February 18


A Poem by C.J. Allen


Great Writers and Their Shirts

Henry David Thoreau had just one shirt.
It was made of horse-hair and he’d wear it out in thunderstorms.
Proust, however, had to have a different shirt each day,
except Thursdays, when he’d wear two shirts simultaneously.
Larkin’s shirts were immaculate, he’d often chide
other writers for sweat- and egg-stains.  Shakespeare
wore only wool shirts but spent his life wishing
someone would invent corduroy. Auden’s shirts were pin-holed
with cigarette burns; if you held them up to the light
they’d show maps of as yet undiscovered constellations. James Joyce
bought his shirts from catalogues, but because he moved house
so often he rarely received them. Consequently
he was frequently to be found in his brother’s shirts, or Ezra Pound’s,
or Italo Svevo’s cast-offs. Longfellow favoured buckskin
but settled for flannel. Cervantes wore shirts with diamond buttons
and had them laundered by a team of jewellers.
T. S. Eliot was famous for always carrying a spare collar-stud.
The Epic of Gilgamesh was written by someone who never wore shirts,
and I think it shows. Similarly, Great Expectations,
Bleak House and The Mystery of Edwin Drood were all written
when Dickens was being measured for new shirts, which is why the writing
has that special stop-start-stop quality. Edward Lear’s shirts
were too tight around the cuffs and Lewis Carroll’s itched. 
Dostoyevsky would refer to his shirts as ‘gloves of time’,
whereas Gogol believed in calling a shirt a shirt,
but in private gave them all names and their own back-stories.
Emily Dickinson experimented with shirts
then quickly gave up when friends started calling her ‘sonny’.
Henry James knew more about shirts than anyone alive.
He wrote a long shirt-novel which he called The Placket,
but his editor told him it was unpublishable and, thankfully, he was right.
There are several websites devoted to Rilke’s shirts
although no-one ever visits them. Thomas Mann
unsuccessfully marketed Magic Mountain cufflinks,
and Bertolt Brecht regarded button-downs as a form of oppression.
Jane Austen, on the other hand, viewed shirts more coolly and drew
sketches of them in the margins of her manuscripts.
Kafka believed his shirts were made from moths’ wings
stitched together with silver thread, although some say
this was just a rumour started by Max Brod.
Shirts and writing have always been mystically connected.
Tolstoy knew this. Flaubert wrote to George Sand
that he had purchased some shirts in Morocco that were exceptionally conducive
to the composition of great literature. Unusually
for the time, it seems they had a pocket in precisely the place
we imagine to be the seat of the human heart.

©  C. J. Allen, 2007



February 24


Several people have asked me what the Chinese characters (欢迎) over at the top of the sidebar mean. In “pinyin” it’s “huānyíng” – and it means “welcome”.

And it occurs to me that this might be an ok moment (or a weak excuse, as if I needed one) to put a Chinese poem here. It’s very famous. It’s by Li Bai, who I guess you can look up if you want to.

This is the Chinese:



For what it’s worth, this is the poem rendered in pinyin:

jìng yè sī

chuáng qián míng yuè guāng
yí shì dì shàng shuāng
jŭ tóu wàng míng yuè
dī tóu sī gú xiāng

Roughly, this translates word for word thus:

still night thought

bed before (ie in front of) bright moon shine
suspect earth (ie ground) on frost
raise head view bright moon
lower head think home

I know enough Mandarin to be able to say this poem, but I’m no translator, although I’d like to be. I nicked what follows from somewhere – well, almost. I got hold of two translations and I didn’t really fall in love with either of them, they didn’t sound right to my ear, so I changed them a little and came up with this:

Thoughts on a still night

Beside my bed is a pool of light –
I think there is frost on the ground.
I raise my head and see the moon,
Bend my head and think of home.

And the only other thing I have to say is that I’ve used this poem for a couple of exercises in classrooms here, and every Chinese student I’ve met knows it by heart. Which absolutely knocks me out.