When life and art collide

I went to see a one-man show at the Edinburgh Fringe festival this week. The performer’s name was Alain English and his show was advertised in a slim booklet which listed all the events you could go to free-of-charge.

The three-line blurb mentioned that English had Asperger’s Syndrome and had written a book about his experiences.

As I was entering the little venue at Cowgatehead, a man loitering outside handed me a flyer. It was for the show I was about to see.

“Thanks!” I said. “This is the one I’m here for.”

The man looked sideways past me. It was his face on the flyer.

I took a seat in the third row of the theatre and for a while I was alone. Then a middle-aged couple arrived and sat across from me. They were followed by two men, one of whom was tall with bleached blonde hair and had red-painted fingernails.

image source: myspace

image source: myspace

And that was it. An audience of five.

Alain English, who has a wide forehead and bulbous eyes, entered the room and headed straight for the back corner of the stage, where he turned his back to the audience, raised his shoulders and took a deep, audible breath.

Then he whipped around, charged to the centre of the stage and began to shout poetically. Mostly about what it felt like to be overwhelmed by conversations. They were like blisters bursting in his brain, he said.

Then he cut off his poetry and began talking conversationally. It was still scripted but the effect was almost off-the-cuff. He said that as a child he lived entirely in his imagination, where he resided as a superhero. When he started school he categorised his male classmates as either heroes or villains. The little girls became princesses or damsels in distress. He was – he admitted- both bullied and a bully himself. He just didn’t quite get the world. Or maybe it didn’t get him.

Then he launched back into poetic language.

English continued the show like this – performing dramatic bursts of poetry punctuated by what was essentially his own biography.

Alain the awkward child grew into Alain the frustrated, isolated adolescent. But he had a solicitous mother who – having seen her son transformed while playing a role in an amateur dramatic production- enrolled him in theatre school.

There he met his teacher and long-time mentor, Annie Inglis, who believed in him. At theatre school he felt free, yet outside he remained constrained and unhappy.

Receiving a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome changed little and he was amazed to find that his beloved Annie Inglis knew about it before he did. I’m a professional, dear she said simply.

Alain dreamt of achieving fame and fortune as an actor. But people advised him to study something useful at university. Something he could “fall back on.”

So he did – and performed in plays in his spare time. But things still weren’t right. He discovered alcohol, then depression. On the closing night of one of his performances, he got drunk, came on to another actor’s girlfriend, almost got into a fight and spent the rest of the evening crying in the toilet.

He worked in boring temp jobs and kept getting fired for being odd.

He went on the dole but had to fight to keep his benefits. His father retired and with it went Alain’s financial back-up.

Then his beloved Annie Inglis died and the hole in his life became yet bigger.

Life, he seemed to be telling the five of us who had now been with him for an hour, was rather disappointing.

And he was running out of things to fall back on.

But then he began to roar again. And this time it was poetry.

“There’s this myth about being an artist created by the media. It’s that either you are famous or you are nothing. That unless you’re a celebrity, you don’t count for anything.”

“That’s a fallacy, a distortion,” he spat.

I shifted in my chair.

“This is the truth of a real artist’s situation. It’s not the fame but the process of artistic creation. That’s the real reason we do what we do. This is how we connect with the world around us. THIS is how we live.”

The tiny theatre was suddenly electric.

“Fall FORWARD on your failures, as well as your successes .. Fall forward on your own terms and no one else’s!””

“Don’t fall back, fall FORWARD. …” he yelled at the five of us.

Silence. And then we clapped like mad.

“Thank you. Thank you. Thanks so much for coming,” he said. “I, er, don’t have a hat to pass around. But I am selling some of my CDs with my poetry.”

The man with the red-painted fingernails was first out the door to buy the CD and have a chat.

I was still inside the theatre as I heard him say, “That was the best show I’ve seen at the Fringe.”

“WHAT?!” Alain roared from outside the door.

The couple across from me and I exchanged a smile.

“I’m serious mate, you made me cry,” said the red-nailed man.

Alain may not be the best poet in the world but that day, he sold five CDs to an audience that had been treated to something rarely authentic.

American Diary Part 2 – Make poetry not paper hats!

In a shop on the banks of the Delaware river in Philadelphia I picked up a book with the title “Newspaper Blackout” by Austin Kleon. I thought it would be about the decline of print media but it wasn’t. It was a book of poems.

In 2008 Kleon was just out of college and living with his girlfriend. He was trying desperately to make it as a short story writer but he had writer’s block. His girlfriend had stacks of the New York Times at home and Kleon, struggling to find any of his own words, resorted to the papers, which had millions. Armed with a permanent marker, he began to read and to draw lines through the words he didn’t need. He was left with the realisation that although he’d “never wanted to be a poet, .. dang if they weren’t poems”.

He posted some of his poems on his blog. Over time, they began to get attention and it wasn’t long before his work was featured on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Kleon says “writing should be fun. Everyone can do it”. It something that I have to remind me of sometimes when I’m staring at a blank computer screen late at night.

I was teaching an advanced English class today and decided to give “newspaper blacking out” a go. There were only three students in the class: a girl from Saudi Arabia and two boys from Japan and Switzerland. We read a few of Kleon’s poems first and then I gave them each a chunky board marker so they could try their own.

I’d picked up three metroheralds on the way to work. We chose to work on the cover story – the guilty verdict in the Jackson doctor case. I gave them about five minutes to complete their poems. Three completely different pieces materialised: three unique ideas jumped from the same article.

I tried my own when I got home today. Not sure I’d really call them “poems” but it was fun to eliminate words at will. See if you can read them here:

What I like most about Kleon’s poems is that you feel part of the craft of writing. You have the sense that these words were chosen actively, by eliminating others. I wonder if this kind of crafting is at odds with the processes of writing creatively. One of the biggest differences is making newspaper blackout poems is that you’re not bound by the structure of the sentence, which usually ensnares you as you begin to write. This kind of writing allows you to draw pictures and to bounce ideas abound without worrying whether your sentence is grammatically and aesthetically pleasing.

Check out Kleon’s Work at http://www.austinkleon.com