Corporate Speak

Have you ever played Corporate Bingo?  In my cubicle days, we used to play it at meetings or on training courses: we’d choose some typical corporate buzzwords, write them down on a piece of paper, and try to see how many of them would be uttered within a designated timeframe.  The one with the most correct ‘hits’ would mutter ‘Bingo’ sotto voce and be declared the winner.  This was the period when I could not write anything outside of work, because I felt weighed down by the jargon.

The poem below might make it clear why I prefer to use a pseudonym in my creative writing, for fear that my corporate clients may recognise themselves and me in this. It’s all a bit of good fun bingo – play along!

Worldwide employees

Corporate-ly

 

Blue sky thinking got us far, but leadership is now about

moving cheese, being humble, fearless, SMART,

all that resilient bouncing about of yellow balls

and off-site team building.

 

We action our deliverables,

bid stakeholders sit and learn.

We share and lip-synch when above-board,

while under the iceberg we hoard and fester.

 

No band-width for emotions unadorned,

no availability for unmediated connection.

We bang for the buck with coerced abandon,

munching our carrots, testing our sticks.

 

All I know is: the feedback sandwich is getting stale,

so last year, as is the corner office with parkside view.

Don’t pause to gaze, don’t ponder the disconnect!

You know the urge to disimpress.

 

Life-Changing Moments

Last weekend I went back for the first time in a decade to Cambridge for an alumni event. When I first got off the coach, I was bewildered by all the new buildings and shops, and promptly got lost.  Later on, I found my department and slowly succumbed to the enchantment of the beautiful architecture and the splendour of the autumnal gardens.  Cambridge was only a brief experience for me: just one year. But its aftermath is still hammering through me, still shaking my being. Many believe that their university experience changed their life.  In my case, it really did change my life forever: opened my mind, changed my career, broke down a marriage, seduced me into love and heartbreak.

My Cambridge was not the one of medieval courts and toga parties, nor of rowing at dawn and wild student pranks.  Not even sustained intellectual debate and lifelong friendships.  Although I encountered all this and more, Cambridge meant much more to me than that.

You have to remember where I came from.  For a while, I had attended an old-fashioned English school abroad, a school where grammar and spelling were revered, where I was taught to speak much like the Queen in her plummier moments, where Cambridge and Oxford were regarded as the pinnacles of human achievement.  A good deal of that washed over my head.  As a grandchild of peasants and the niece of factory-workers, I never quite understood the class system and snobbery implicit in the Oxbridge privilege.  Instead, I asociated it with intellectual achievement (and included Harvard, Yale, Sorbonne and a few others in that list).  I came from a culture that was fiercely proud and in awe of its intelligentsia, even as it spied on them and locked them up for insubordination.  It was to this closed and fearful culture that I returned as a teenager.  And I found it hard.

Brains mattered, I was told.  Yet what I saw, day after day, was that what was really required was monkey-like cleverness, ability to memorise, repeat, be quick and juggle numbers.  Intelligence did not mean curiosity, imagination, asking questions or using simple sentences.  I was being forced back into the mould. So I retreated into my dream world.  Somewhere, there was a magic place where brains are allowed to develop and soar, where they are admired fully in all their colourful variety and glory.

In 1989 walls came tumbling down across Europe and we gradually had the opportunity to see Cambridge for ourselves.  And this is what I saw: that there were fantastic and mediocre brains there, as everywhere else.  That the world of rich ideas and interdisciplinary connections is so powerful in its beauty, so endlessly inspiring, that I wanted to wrap myself up in its cocoon forever.

I began to realise that the well-maintained borders and lawns of the Cambridge colleges, the noble architecture, the self-sufficient simplicity of college rooms, the take-as-much-as-you-need social interaction in dining halls are all designed to protect and nurture the life of the spirit.  You can clearly see the monastic origin of these great universities.  And it’s not hard to understand the urge to devote yourself to that path of single focus.  I have so often yearned for this ideal, but messy life got in the way.

Twenty years on, I have finally understood and accepted that I will never have the peaceful don’s life for which my passion and my gifts might have been best suited.  Sometimes you just cannot follow your passion in life, but Cambridge did clarify for me what my passion was.  Above all, it gave me oxygen to feed my life.

All I need to do, as I rummage through the imperfect, often overwhelming, shapeless lump of mud and gemstones which is my life, is to find that Cambridge state of mind, that inner peace, that source of oxygen which brings forth my best ideas and my most honest self.

 

Accidental Poet

Most of the spam is blatantly spammy and instantly forgettable.  But every now and then something appears which is so random, so illogical, so surreal, that it almost qualifies as poetry. Here is one I only mildly edited earlier:

‘Invest in your intention, dreams, enthusiasm, vision. Your zigzag enlivens you. Madness would activate dancing, sure enough, humanitarian would unite me with friends less fortunate. It’s first-class dance, then, and you advance, you dance. It’s approximately communal ventures. Though you’re up first, you shilly-shally awhile. Wind up your marvellous conversation, strike your aligned activity! Leap, you close by people, back in time! Find yourself, mettle your business, benefit theirs.  Today, from now on, more than ever, scrape stirs you go off at a tangent. And it soothes you and nurtures your essence.’

So, if a computer can write something approximating poetry, what should we make of automatic writing?  This is the unedited flow of pen on paper, when a writer connects with their subconscious and feels that their words are being ‘dictated’ to them by some external source. French historian and literary critic Taine and Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa claim to have used this form of writing for some of their work.

Yes, there are some extreme examples of automatic writing – such as Martian alphabets and spiritualist messages from the Beyond.  But what I am referring to here are those words that seem to come out of nowhere  – in my case at four in the morning more often than not. I stumble out of the bedroom to a quiet corner, trying not to wake up the rest of the house, and scribble down something in haste, in fury, desperate not to miss the Muse.  In the early hours of the morning it seems brilliant, truly poetic, very profound…

In broad daylight, however… it’s about as good as the random string of words above, produced by robots. I save a phrase here, a word there, perhaps more the feel of the poem or story than the actual wording. What I do find is that it helps me to access a part of myself that usually lies dormant, a part that exists beyond the endless professional reports, shopping lists, laundry duties and trying to coordinate everybody’s schedule.  It gives me ideas.

No. That’s not true – I never experience a shortage of ideas. If anything, I suffer from the tendency of chasing after too many hares and ideas simultaneously.  So what it does give me is silence, recollection, a reminder that you need to make time to listen to yourself.

So, if you want to try automatic writing (nowadays better known as ‘free writing‘, as described by Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg), here is one way to get started:

1) Find a quiet time of day (or night), when you are not likely to be disturbed.  Find a quiet, comfortable place and get all your writing materials to hand, so that you do not need to interrupt yourself to search for a new pen or more paper.  Handwriting works better than laptops, but if you are so uncomfortable with notebook and pen that you would get distracted, then use your computer.

2) Most manuals say you should set a time limit.  I don’t actually do that myself. Or, rather I set myself a minimum of 10 minutes – but if the Muse grabs me by the throat and forces me to write for longer, who am I to argue with her?

3) Don’t worry about what you are going to say, or how you say it: grammar, spelling, punctuation, editing as you go along.  Again, I don’t quite stick to this rule: if I feel like crossing something out and rewriting, I will.  But if I am crossing out everything and rewriting the same phrase again and again – then that’s a definite No-no!

4) Once you’ve finished, set it aside for a few hours, maybe a day.  Then go back to it and see what you can keep, what new thoughts it has triggered.  Is there anything in what you have produced that you would like to explore further?

And if you have found a rare precious word, an accidental couple forged in beauty or distress, if you glimpsed some hidden treasure…  be happy, be realistic and keep on digging!

Or, to mix metaphors in a bout of automatism, it takes a lot of churning to make butter…

 

The Art of Science

When they uncovered the last of the bones

they placed them so gently

alongside the rest,

and brushed with soft caresses

the mould blooming in cavernous skulls.

 

When they found paths of eerie beauty

where particles had met

and shuddered to a halt,

they held up mirrors of foggy fascination

to conjure up bold dances to music overload.

 

When the lab mice get injected

to thrill to slightest sound,

vibrate in nervous tension,

they travel through synapses at speeds you cannot measure –

those words blushing with excitement at waking up on stage.

Ships in the Night

She would do

Make do

A shrug as you count and find

Slightly wanting.

Nearly there

Almost perfect

Rather very but sufficiently nice.

Vainglory flows from the cups we have shared.

Satiated and  plump, we each go our way.

 

We shape this damp shroud between us

We cast it pearls to rummaging snouts

We batter some life in things long left dead

We scratch our wounds raw.

After the party

We linger and drain once-intimate gestures

of meaning, magic and trust.

Empty cups, vain promises,

Hopes unsated, we  just miss.

Blocked

Word by word they sucked it

void of treasure, dry of sap.

The lotus seed burst not into bloom that year.

Bit by bit they chiselled

away at its proud likeness.

How hurtful, how convenient

when friends hurl friends to oblivion.

 

Clenched, jaw-like,

in a world of its own hating,

we shivered with the knowing,

we struggled with the touch.

The gush has settled down into a mere trickle

and mud is silting oddly the channels of delight.

 

We sigh and add more caustic

as inspiration dies.

Constant Gardener

Sowing such thin layers

Reaping bitter crop

Weeding out small fearsomes

Roots exposed on top

Floundering in compost

Sinking in the ground

No active verbs in this one.

 

Words, ready to pound.

 

And a quick answer for those who wondered what the poem I posted a week or so ago was about (the one starting ‘First the little slip…‘): it was about Alzheimer’s.

Empathy

She sits in laundry like a queen.

She heaves big sighs like someone slighted.

Each look reproaches

When she approaches.

She makes time fly in bustling beeps.

 

She yells at children far too often.

She issues orders, nags and rants.

It’s all her way

Or else no way.

She’s sly with arrows, hitting true.

 

Yet for all her sovereignty, the house is not clean

And administrative tasks fall largely through cracks.

For all her big postures, her actions near miss.

She’s long given up on gainful employment,

Or bringing in money, or useful discourse.

 

All this I can take, all this I can stomach.

But one thing I cannot and will not forgive:

When she forgets about us and shrugs off her kin,

When she goes off into her world of mad scribbles,

Leaving us poorer, defensive and flawed.

Hunger

Oldest story in the world: top of her class, distinction at uni, hired then poached by ever better-known firms.  Youngest to make partner.  Tipped for wealth and greatness. Travel, exotic foods, white villa with Ligne Roset furniture.  Then cutting back as one adorable toothless grin, then two, then three captivated her heart.

‘Not pasta again!’

‘Don’t want to wash my hands!’

‘Staaaaarving!’

Husband off again, something about bringing home the bacon. He was trapped by long hours, but she was the bacon.  Right there: cauliflower crumbs in her hair, stained with sauce, scoffing remains, falling over muddy gear.

‘I’m sick of you all!’ she screeched.

Grunts subsided, six eyes looked up.  Was the fear in their eyes a reflection of hers?

Later: ‘Did you know, Mummy: pigs can’t look up at the sky?’

Nor oxen either.

They never found out why she thought that the funniest thing ever.

And in case anyone thinks that there is a recurrent theme in my work and that I hate or resent children: this is fiction!  But what interests me is that tension between the creative best version of self and the everyday workhorse. Stanley Kunitz talks about the poet’s need to find the taste of self, which is ‘damaged, wiped out by the diurnal, the cares, the responsibilities that each day demand one’s attention… but the day itself cannot be construed as an enemy; it is what gives you the materials you have not only to contend with, but to work with, to build…’