The Moon Thief in Urthona

I’ve written a poem in response to a zen koan. The Moon Thief will be published in the forthcoming spring issue of Urthona.

‘The Moon Thief ’ came out of an encounter with the koan in the poem’s epigraph: the great Zen poet Ryokan, meditating in a mountain hermitage, offers his clothes to a thief but cannot give him a full appreciation of the moon. Mark writes: ‘I was walking home from work and suddenly thought, “there’s another side to this story.” Working in and around the silences of the koan brought many scenes and characters over time.’

This long poem relates the quest of a drifter and thief desperately seeking a treasure that will heal his inner wounds. He stumbles upon Ryokan, the Japanese hermit poet. In this version, the chance encounter changes everything for the thief – but what will he find at the summit?

Here’s the original koan that inspired the poem.

A Zen Master lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening, while he was away, a thief sneaked into the hut only to find there was nothing in it to steal. The Zen Master returned and found him. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” The thief was bewildered, but he took the clothes and ran away. The Master sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, ” I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

From Zen Stories to Tell Your Neighbours

Subscribe to Urthona: Journal of Buddhism and the Arts to read The Moon Thief. The next issue’s theme is ‘the beauty of friendship’ and it looks great.

Live Canon 2016

Hello! Guess what? I was shortlisted for the Live Canon International Poetry Competition again. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get over to Greenwich Theatre to hear the shortlisted poems performed but am chuffed to have my poem published in their new anthology. It’s a response to Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’.

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Returning to Woods on a Snowy Evening

Developers have sought permission for
much-needed housing. Many trees are gone.
Although I’ve rarely walked in them before,
these woods belong to me, if anyone.

My new coat covers something old in me,
a looker-at-birches who journeyed on.
Ice storms silver everything here but time.
Diggers crouch: eager to do and be done.

Trees are like flagpoles beside the road,
marking the quiet border of a ceasefire.
At 1 a.m., I’ve come out here to tread
down snow and put the freeze on my desire.

Love, in any language, can’t be understood.
The call’s been made, the council has agreed.
No one can say how dark, how deep this wood.
How long before suburbs become its seed.

 

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The competition was won by Aileen La Tourette for ‘The Diving Horse’. Congratulations to Aileen and to all of the poets who shortlisted. As a competition that believes poetry should be read aloud, the Live Canon anthology will be alive with poems that crackle and sparkle in the ear. You can buy it from Amazon.

Update: you can also buy Live Canon’s New Poems for Christmas anthology.

Failure

titanic-mould-loft-design

The ship’s design pictured is the Titanic. The cross-section is drawn at full scale and the length at quarter scale.

I visited the Titanic exhibition in Belfast recently. The timing couldn’t have been better as I’ve been reading Matthew Syed’s Black Box Thinking, about how we learn from failures both catastrophic and small. The ‘unsinkable’ ship that went down on its maiden voyage is a prime example of the gap between our expectations and the complexity of the real world. One of the striking quotes in Syed’s book outlines how progress is largely bought with failure, and in safety-critical areas, with blood. There are starkly important areas where black box thinking and a related concept, marginal gains, can be applied. Syed contrasts case studies from aviation, medicine, and the criminal justice system to name a few.

The importance of feedback

Syed has an interesting metaphor for thinking about failure and feedback. Some disciplines offer instant feedback on whether you’re on the right track; others permit you to flail around without ever knowing. He likens it to practicing your swing on a driving range in total darkness. How would you ever know to adjust your technique? How would you improve? He quotes a statistic that says trainee psychotherapists “obtain results that are as good as those of licensed ‘experts’.” The reason for this, Syed argues, is that psychotherapists have only indirect access to their patients’ inner experience, and few therapists track long-term outcomes once a client relationship has ended. This means they have little opportunity to revise their judgements based on real-world feedback. Another example: apparently, people learn to steer cars much faster than boats because the effect of steering on tarmac is immediate where as the action of a rudder is delayed. So in any number of disciplines the question becomes how can we give ourselves more immediate feedback?

I wonder if the same problem faces meditation teachers, and how it might be overcome – perhaps through standardised questionnaires, as some therapists have advocated for. In meditation, many teachers encourage an attitude of playful exploration. A large part of the practice seems to be trying various approaches and inquiries, and seeing for yourself what the outcome is – classic trial and error. We call it meditation practice for a reason perhaps. One conception of how this works might be that meditation reconnects you to the feedback mechanisms of body and mind. After all, you are the most sensitive, subtle instrument at your disposal. The non-linguistic right hemisphere of the brain is constantly processing thousands of datapoints and expressing these through the body as feeling, intuition, emotion. If you’re wary of becoming a quantified self (as opposed to an unquantifiable one), take heart. In my view, as sensate human beings we are already data-driven so wearing a fitness tracker is like putting legs on a snake, to use a metaphor from zen: unnecessary.

Some feedback is hard to face, of course. And this is where the problem of cognitive dissonance appears. To accept that we have made a mistake may imply some uncomfortable facts about ourselves that we do not want to see. It’s very hard to accept that you have made mistakes when it comes to parenting, for instance, but that admission could fuel future growth. This is how children themselves learn, after all. Every tumble and setback is part of an epic process of trial and error that leads from sitting upright to cartwheels and handstands. We are failing and learning all the time. Following Syed’s logic, perhaps one of the deep problems in depending on unhelpful strategies to cope in life is that when we go to excessive lengths to avoid failure and pain we also turn away from the mechanism that will spark future growth. As always, it probably pays to know where a compassionate balance lies.

Creativity

Syed emphasises that creativity is a response to a problem in a specific time and place. While we often buy into the idea of lightning bolt of inspiration, it is engaging with a well-defined problem that turns us into a conductor for the muse. Inspiration often then strikes when we step back and switch off, or when we are jarred into an epiphany by criticism, paradox, or an unusual connection. Syed, like others before him, claims that such a creative epiphany can almost always be characterised as a connection of ideas from previously separate conceptual categories. He also believes that true progress often requires both a paradigmatic shift and compounded marginal gains. Optimising existing processes may get you to the top of a particular hill while the mountain remains unclimbed.

Craft improves through failure. Sometimes exclusively so. This is the learning mechanism at the heart of practice. For example, every author begins by writing badly. Over the years, style, ability and judgement develop as we innovate around now familiar pitfalls. Every failure tells us something new about ourselves, our craft, and the world. Even an experienced writer will produce a bad first draft. In a sense, with each new project they should be trying something they have never done before. We wouldn’t call this a failure but it’s essentially the same: an iteration. Bad dialogue can be replaced. Awkward plot points can be straightened out. Instead of stigmatising failure and falling back on blame, applying the same mindset to other areas of life could be similarly fruitful.

With this mindset, there’s less resistance to thinking about why I haven’t managed to complete a novel, as I said I would two years ago. The idea, I think, is not to allow self-blame creep in but to analyse contributing factors compassionately. In the case of the novel, after trying for a few weeks I felt it was simply not the time, and not the right idea. I’d been cranking out words and projects of all kinds and had a unique opportunity to slow down, enjoy life, and let things happen by themselves.

If I undertake another long writing project in the future, I’ll know what I’m getting into a bit better, and where a few more of the pitfalls are. I hope that I’ll take Syed’s advice and get feedback early on to motivate myself and improve the work. In fact, he uses Pixar as an example of iterative story writing. The animation studio’s writing teams often end up drawing 125,000 storyboards or more. While I don’t think I can pump out quite that many iterations, I could start writing some scenes and character sketches on this blog and seeing what folk enjoy.

Every poet has a long career of being rejected from magazines and crashing out of competitions. Often, no feedback is provided. This is understandable because of the huge workload and time pressure editors and judges face. However, just think how helpful even a line of feedback could be to developing writers. One of my poems, ‘Vardøger‘, was rejected from Poetry Review with a one-liner that they really liked the first three stanzas but not the rest of it. They were right. I cut the poem down and submitted it in the Poetry School/Nine Arches Press Primers competition, where it was probably my strongest shortlisted poem. Perhaps in the future I’ll be more tenacious about asking for feedback.

Back to Titanic

But what of the Titanic? What was learnt from that? Well, not only were serious design flaws brought to light – the inadequate rudder, flooding compartments, lack of lifeboats – but regulations governing safety at sea and responding to ships in distress were overhauled. Probably not every lesson that could have been learnt was. As humans we often take the most efficient approach to problem-solving by doing things the way we’ve done them before. As a friend of mine says, “if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.”

Failure is inevitable but Black Box Thinking argues that embracing setbacks liberates us from future mistakes. It frees us to learn from failure instead of turning from the pain of it and being doomed to repeat it.

Live Canon 2015 Anthology

Hello all, the new Live Canon anthology is available to buy on Amazon. In it you’ll find a new poem by Geraldine Clarkson, ‘After If–‘; Isabel Rogers’ ‘Boys in the Storm’; my poem, ‘Labyrinth’, and lots more besides. All the poems have been shortlisted for the annual Live Canon competition and the winning poem will be announced on the 22nd of November after a performance by the Live Canon troupe. Go to livecanon.co.uk to find out more.

Two shortlistings

Not long ago, I submitted six poems to the Primers scheme launched by Nine Arches Press and The Poetry School. These were shortlisted and I was invited to submit twenty poems for consideration by the judges, Kathryn Maris and Jane Commane. It’s a great scheme, offering a year of mentoring and the chance to give readings at a few events. We’ll see what happens. A book of shortlisted poems will be available.

Also, my poem, ‘Labyrinth’, has been shortlisted for this year’s Live Canon International Poetry Competition. It will be performed, alongside other shortlisted poems, by the Live Canon retinue at Greenwich Theatre on the 22nd of November. Isabel Rogers, a great poet who I first met through the Live Canon comp., has also been shortlisted with her poem, ‘Boys in the Storm’.

Hugh’s poem: ‘Water Tasting’

You can read and listen to painter-poet Hugh Greasley’s ‘Water Tasting’ on the Chalk Legends website, as well as ‘Rendzinia’, and ‘Native Habitat’. All three poems will feature in our upcoming pamphlet, The Chalk Path, but ‘Water Tasting’ is a good introduction to Hugh’s work. It combines his imaginative inversions of the everyday with his talent for lyricism: painting with words.

The importance of imagination

The world seems apt to give rise to stories and images. Such imaginings may be the product of our minds, but our minds are nonetheless part of the world and shaped by it. Imagination is a dialogue with the world, and a feature of it. To conceive of reality only in terms of the barest facts is to commit two errors: to overlook the role imagination plays in constructing our worldview; and to neglect the richness of possibility so readily explored when we indulge imagination.

“My God, it’s full of stars”

As far as I know, none of history’s greatest philosopher-poets had their best insights while holding a soiled cat litter tray. But there I was, in the garden after midnight, seeking truth and a clean gravel-filled receptacle for Mr. Biggington. The valley was cool and quiet. I looked up from the decking to see a bright canopy of stars. I gazed upward in hope of a straggling Perseid meteor. None came.

As insights go it was more a way of looking. Consider that concepts we use to categorise what we see lead us to take those things for granted. So when I see a thousand pinpoints of white-blue light that are billions of years old, I think “stars” and continue cleaning out the litter tray. In fact, the constellations our ancestors navigated by for millenia are slowly changing shape. They have no blueprint. No necessary form or intrinsic reason to exist. Perhaps this whole arrangement is fleeting, vertiginous chance and should be honoured with our closest attention. Maybe that’s what poetry does for us, I thought, as I finished cleaning up cat shit.