Mourning and the mosaic: 2

The mode is incremental: mosaic rather than Mosaic. Instead of the all-encompassing lists of the law-giver, it’s the accumulation of tesserae that means some portion of a picture can be conceived of, and therefore the larger scheme can be guessed at and sketched out.

There is in this an attitude toward social media, rather than a prescription for it. Firstly, that it is not strictly speaking personal at all, no matter how much it may derive from the actual person: it is a negotiation between personae. Many people use Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, blogging, etc, as an unmediated confessional, a record with diaristic elements. For me, however, the thought of posting personally about my father had to be approached formally through the means of the eulogy, the essay.

Others use it as a platform for self-promotion and self-publication, activities I would confine myself to describing as difficult. Yes, there always is and should be a consideration of and engagement with audience, with the reader, viewer, listener, in anything we are prepared to put in the public arena. Nothing in this sense is simply expressive; everything in this context is published. But this doesn’t eliminate gradation.

I’ve always been reluctant to initiate self-promotion, though I’ll happily pick up on existing publicity. I’ve also been reluctant to publish online anything which I would normally think of as primarily intended for a traditional print medium. In this I am clearly dropping a lot of material into the conventional literary categories of marginalia and occasional writing. But equally I’m aware that aspects of social media challenge these conventions.

Essentially, I’ve been content to let some material appear and vanish in an epistolary manner, replying to specific people or threads with a sense that what happens is and should be ephemeral. With other material, I’ve accepted that the ephemeral is a usual part of the drafting process, and copied it to adapt for use elsewhere.

With Twitter in particular, though, I’ve often thought that something slightly different is emerging. This is partly connected to my sense, shared with other writers, of its 140 character restraint as an actual form. I’ve always thought it entertaining that we insert other forms – haiku, quatrain, almost-limerick – into something that is already a distinct enough vessel to contain everything from mini-narrative to plays on register to complete satori of observation. I’ve tended to think of it, partly because of its name, as inherently comic. And I’ve generally been happy to consider it a peculiarly communal epic, each timeline as its own version, scrolling on, almost, forever, and requiring no further mediation or separate publication.

But this period of mourning has enabled me to come to terms with the idea that the tweet is a viable and adaptable building block for work that I would like to lay claim to. Joining a collaborative group has forced me to think about ownership of the text in a useful and empowering way at a time of personal and (therefore) creative crisis. Hugely influenced by George Szirtes‘ work in accumulating tweets into prose poem units or haiku groups, I’ve begun to distinguish between the single tweet or just riffing on a theme, and the possible creative unit that a certain number – say around seven – of tweets starts to offer.

In the Chimera group, in fact, I’ve posted freely single and multiple tweets on themes that appeal to me – usually comic, but with an edge of dark whimsy both appropriate to the group and to my ongoing engagement with what we mean by the ‘cartoon’ (more on this hopefully soon). These are very happily anonymous. But I’ve also aimed for and then separated out units of seven or so tweets which develop a single theme. These I’ve finally felt able to claim as my own work, writing produced and published entirely within a digital frame.

This has, as the serious play of composition often does, freed me to move onto those more conventional pieces of writing, the essay, the poem, the novel, that my father’s death had thrown temporarily but overpoweringly off track.

I’m therefore more convinced than ever that the left-field, the under-valued, the overlooked, the casually condemned modes of thinking and writing supported by the internet, are not just my but in certain circumstances writing’s Samaritans, and that the more publicised, media-acknowledged-and-therefore-‘popular’, self-aggrandising (whether on the part of the writer, the organiser or the audience) – in short the more commercially acknowledged and profitable routes that writing is forced down – are, metaphorically speaking, the Old Man of the Sea, a Nobodaddy parasitically clinging to our backs and happy for us to die under them.

My father always unquestioningly supported my writing even while pushing me to be as sensible as he thought I could manage in order to support myself and my family. I’m still learning how proud he was of me, and how profoundly his support has enabled me to write freely.

One of his many legacies to me, then, is the strength to seek out what enables my writing, and to resist what commodifies it or, worse, draws on its energy to preserve and promote its own very different agendas.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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