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Don’t Play With Your Food. Do Play With Your Poetry

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Don't Play With Your Food. Do Play With Your Poetry

Open the Window, Let the Draught In

As poets, something most of us do as we're drafting a new poem, is to shake the poem up a little, like a snow globe, to see what ideas appear when the snow has settled. Maybe we change the gender or age of a character, switching tense, basing it in a city centre instead of a rural location, or switching the pet cat for a dog or a boa constrictor. Even if we revert to how it was originally, the time spent exploring how the poem, and the characters in the poem, change bring a better understanding of the characters and their reactions, no matter where the poem takes them.

Fun and Games

One thing that had escaped my notice until this week, is how much information on the setting gets given in the script for a play. In poems we describe the features of any location, be it a room, a car, a shopping mall or a park, but we include only enough scenery to let the reader visualise the scene, we don't overload the poem with every single thing that is in the room.

The last play scripts I read were Romeo and Juliet, and Willis Hall's The Long and the Short and the Tall as part of my GCSE English course back in the late 1980s, and another Shakespeare play, Richard II, for A-level in 1990/91. Although I've been to performances of plays since then, that's the last time I looked at what is written down in the actual script of a play.

I'm a member of a creative writing group, led by Mair DeGare Pitt which has spent the last couple of weeks looking at short TV sketches and plays for the stage. I've been fascinated by how much scene-setting gets included in the script, which is something we generally don't do so much in our poetry — we try and use enough words to evoke the scene in the reader's imagination, but we're not going to be making a stage set that an audience can physically see.

The Long and the Short and the Poem

Short story writers do this so why shouldn't poets? When beginning to work on a short story, I'll write down a character profile — age, appearance, family relationships, educational background, dress sense, likes and dislikes etc — so that, wherever the story goes, I know how the character will react. I used to do something very similar when I grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons, where dice were rolled to determine character attributes like strength, stamina and charisma.

All player characters have six basic statistics:

  • Strength (STR): Strength is a measure of muscle, endurance and stamina combined. Strength affects the ability of characters to lift and carry weights, melee attack rolls, damage rolls (for both melee and ranged weapons), certain physical skills, several combat actions, and general checks involving moving or breaking objects.
  • Dexterity (DEX): Dexterity encompasses a number of physical attributes including hand-eye coordination, agility, reflexes, fine motor skills, balance and speed of movement; a high dexterity score indicates superiority in all these attributes. Dexterity affects characters with regard to initiative in combat, ranged attack rolls, armor class, saving throws, and other physical skills. Dexterity is the ability most influenced by outside influences (such as armor).
  • Constitution (CON): Constitution is a term which encompasses the character's physique, toughness, health and resistance to disease and poison. The higher a character's constitution, the more hit points that character will have. Constitution also is important for saving throws, and fatigue-based general checks. Unlike the other ability scores, which render the character unconscious or immobile when they hit 0, having 0 Constitution is fatal.
  • Intelligence (INT): Intelligence is similar to IQ, but also includes mnemonic ability, reasoning and learning ability outside those measured by the written word. Intelligence dictates the number of languages a character can learn, and it influences the number of spells a preparation-based arcane spellcaster (like a Wizard) may cast per day, and the effectiveness of said spells. It also affects certain mental skills.
  • Wisdom (WIS): Wisdom is a composite term for the character's enlightenment, judgment, wile, willpower and intuitiveness. Wisdom influences the number of spells a divine spellcaster (like clerics, druids, paladins, and rangers) can cast per day, and the effectiveness of said spells. It also affects saving throws and linked skills.
  • Charisma (CHA): Charisma is the measure of the character's combined physical attractiveness, persuasiveness, and personal magnetism. A generally non-beautiful character can have a very high charisma due to strong measures of the other two aspects of charisma. Charisma influences how many spells spontaneous arcane spellcasters (like sorcerers and bards) can cast per day, and the effectiveness of said spells.

(from Wikipedia page on Dungeons and Dragons, ability scores section.)

Ben and Gus

No, I haven't decided to launch a new brand of ice cream under that moniker! They are the character's in Harold Pinter's play The Dumb Waiter. The script commences with a detailed guide to the setting and the attire of the characters:

Scene : A basement room. Two beds, flat against the back wall. A serving hatch, closed, between the beds. A door to the kitchen and lavatory, left. A door to a passage, right.
BEN is lying on a bed, left, reading a paper. GUS is sitting on a bed, right, tying his shoelaces, with difficulty. Both are dressed in shirts, trousers and braces.

I have no pretention about turning my short story in verse, which I've been hacking away at for about fifteen years now, into a staged monologue in the style that Alan Bennet's magnificent Talking Heads series of monologues has been, but it did make me wonder how my monologue would work if transmuted from poem to stage.

On my poems page there is an extract from an earlier version of chapter 1, which at the time was called It Was Winter Last We Spoke, and the monologue is given by an unnamed protagonist after his wife has left him for somebody else. With the insightful eye of Julia Copus, tutor on a very productive residential week I spent at the Arvon Lumb Bank centre last November, the chapter has had a significant edit, and hopefully I can apply that editing mindset to the remaining chapters during the next 12 months.

Under the Spotlight

So how would that first chapter look on stage? Well, later in the short story, there is a chapter where he reflects on the friends he no longer sees since he quit smoking. I think he's the sort of guy that would clean out his old ashtrays and display them as decorative ornaments in his London apartment. I think the floorboards creak as he walks from living room to kitchen, and I bet the hot tap on the sink in the bathroom wobbles like a Weeble when he turns it for his morning shave. He shares his apartment with a cat called Capricorn, who gets her own chapter of the story later on, in which it relates how everything has fallen victim to her claws — I used to have a cat called Sidney, who loved to shred the wallpaper because it was slightly textured, so every day I'd return home from work to find the carpet with a fine dusting of wallpaper dandruff where Sid had manicured his nails that day; Capricorn inherits that characteristic from Sid :)

Open the Curtains

Thinking about how my short story in verse, working title Plastic Life, might look as a staged monologue, has brought some helpful ideas about how I'm going to challenge and develop the main character, and in how those changes might find their way into chapters of the story.

... I'll get on with it, as soon as I've bought myself a dumb waiter on eBay to save me carrying my cup of coffee up from the kitchen to my writing space ;)

#shortStory #PlasticLife #HaroldPinter #DumbWaiter #JuliaCopus #ArvonLumbBank @JuliaCopus @Arvon

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