Creatives in profile: interview with Sean Leahy

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Named as one of the ’50 Funniest People on Twitter’, Sean Leahy has built quite the following on the Twittershphere as @thepunningman. Appearing on Buzzfeed, Comedy Central, The Poke, Huffington Post, Funny or Die and TimeOut (among others), he has recently published his debut children’s book, The Monster Cafe via award-winning publishers Unbound. 

Illustrated by Hungarian artist Mihály Orodán, The Monster Café is a humourous tale that deals with pre-conceptions, pre-school excitement and pre-tty big monsters.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

LEAHY

I’m 36, and I live just outside the gates of Hampton Court Palace with my wife and two children. I earn a crust as a Graphic Designer, and have done for the past 15 years.

INTERVIEWER

Beyond writing and comedy, what are you passionate about?

LEAHY

Football, punk rock and Guinness. The order is dictated by Tottenham Hotspur.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you, and why?

LEAHY

Shepard Fairey (the mind behind Obey Giant), for taking something as raw as street art (despite my disliking that term) and punk and making a phenomenon out of it. And Jerry Seinfeld for doing the same with comedy.

INTERVIEWER

Was it always your intention to wind up writing jokes for a living?

LEAHY

Well, it’s not a living yet. I had a real interest in jokes, wordplay and the structure of comedy from a young age, and I had a real interest in ‘making’, be it art, design, writing, film, whatever, in order to get through the working day, rather than doing something I had no interest in.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve published The Monster Café, through Unbound books. Can you tell us a little about where the idea for the book first sprang, and how it evolved?

LEAHY

Having two children means I’ve sat through several kids books, and while there are loads of utterly brilliant and beautiful ones, there are SO MANY that are just complete and utter dog eggs.

It’s trite to say “Christ, I could do better than that”, but I think I have, and hopefully the kids agree.

INTERVIEWER

What’s your experience of publishing with Unbound been like?

LEAHY

The’ve been amazing. The book simply wouldn’t exist had they not afforded me the opportunity. They’re really interesting, in that they crowdfund all of their books, which allows the authors total creative freedom.

As designers, both Mihaly (the illustrator) and I wanted to be able to lay the book out ourselves, and we were able to do that and make all the decisions about how it should look. Once the money was raised we delivered the finished book to them and they made sure it was just as we envisioned it.

It’s taken a while, but we’re really pleased with it.

INTERVIEWER

It seems old hat to say it in some ways, but generally speaking the ‘mainstream’ publishing industry has been somewhat risk averse when it comes to championing and publishing new books that aren’t in someway “copies of novels that are themselves copies of previously successful novels”, as Julian Barnes once noted. What opportunities do you think Crowdfunding offers to aspiring writers with new, unique or otherwise quirky ideas?

LEAHY

It’s meant a lot. You just need to take a glance at a some of the books Unbound have published to see there’s a wealth of topics you don’t see on the shelves in Waterstones. Obviously they’re not only way to go about crowdfunding your book, but the fact they’re a publisher (and a respected one at that), means the buyers take them seriously too. They’re not just putting out any old rubbish, they consider each and every project that is submitted to them, but really champion those who don’t usually get given a voice in this industry.

INTERVIEWER

What makes a good crowdfunding project, in your opinion? And what should authors considering following this route themselves consider before starting their own campaign?

LEAHY

Make it stand out. You only need to scroll the length of one screen these days before you’re bashed over the head by someone asking for your money. Give them a valid reason to part with theirs, and make it colourful.

INTERVIEWER

Your creative partner in The Monster Café is Mihaly Orodan – could you tell us about your artistic partnership; how did you know Mihaly’s illustration style would complement your writing?

LEAHY

Mike (to his pals, and some enemies) and I worked together at a tiny creative agency just outside London. His main task was creating infographics and icons for super dry financial companies. But he also drew caricatures for all the birthdays and leaving cards. Once I saw what he was really capable of, I basically twisted his arm until he agreed to illustrate the book. He’s now has an agent and is working on his fourth book since mine.

His work is really incredible. To be able to put your full faith in someone to just ‘get’ what you want is quite rare, but that’s what I was able to do. I basically laid out the entire book with blank pages and small notes on what should be on each spread. I think I had three amends from the first draft he sent me. It was astonishing.

INTERVIEWER

You’re extremely active on Twitter – what role does social media have to play in the professional lives of artistic and established creatives? Is it an inevitable part of our world with which we must participate?

LEAHY

Twitter is the reason the book is here, make no mistake about it. I’ve been lucky enough to gain a decent following on there from writing jokes and little “micro-sketches”, and that audience has meant I had someone to sell the book to. Obviously friends and family make up a big part of who fund a project, but the fact there was an active group of people who enjoy my writing enough to subscribe to it meant I had more eyes to put the project in front of.

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

How do you tell a good joke?

LEAHY

Start with the punchline and work backwards

INTERVIEWER

Curl up with a book or head to the movies?

LEAHY

I never get to go to the cinema any more, so definitely that.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

LEAHY

Both have value, but I’ll go cult.

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated book/film?

LEAHY

The Red Dwarf novels

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated book/film?

LEAHY

On The Road – It’s SO short and I still couldn’t finish it.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think people should know more about?

LEAHY

Jon Klassen. His children’s books, particularly I Want My Hat Back, are brilliantly dark and hilarious.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

LEAHY

I can clap one handed.

INTERVIEWER

A bad film review can sink a new director, whereas a good one can catapult someone from obscurity into stardom. Do you personally feel any ethical responsibility as a reviewer?

LEAHY

I am a very enthusiastic recommender. I will bore the ears off anyone that will listen about anything I love. There is value in criticism though, as long as it’s valid.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

LEAHY

She opened the door.
SURPRISE!
Goose.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 10 tips for writers?

LEAHY

Write all the time.
Write again.
Read it back, twice.
You’re never finished.
Write again.
Tea and biscuits.
Consume everything, even the bad stuff.
Invite criticism.
Listen to criticism.
Write again.

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Creatives in profile: interview with Joana Ramiro

Joana Ramiro

Joana Ramiro is a journalist, writer and political commentator.

Born in Lisbon, in 2006 she moved to London, and in 2010 she became one of the founders of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, as well as its Chief Press Officer. Since then, she has covered the occupation of Tahir Square in Cairo during the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’, as well as the 2015 Greek elections and the Calais refugee camp, among numerous other pieces of foreign correspondence.

Domestically, she was the first reporter to cover the fight of Focus E15, a group of London single mothers campaigning to be rehoused, after being evicted from a hostel by Newham Council in 2014. She has reported from a series of mass demonstrations, occupations, deportations and strikes, focusing on the effects of austerity policies in British society.

As a political commentator, Ramiro has been featured on Channel 4 News, BBC and LBC radio, as well as debates against fellow pundits Peter Oborne, Michael White and Peter Hitchens.

At a time when the truth is under attack – when journalists are attacked and maligned by those in power and those online, while Silicon Valley siphons off advertising revenue and amplifies untruths for profit – supporting, and hearing from, independent journalists is increasingly important. So Nothing in the Rulebook were incredibly pleased to catch up with Ramiro to bring you this following interview.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle
RAMIRO
 

Hi, my name is Joana Ramiro and I’m a freelance journalist and writer based in London. I carry a Portuguese passport and was educated in a German school. My dad’s Angolan. It was all a big melting pot back at home and I try to keep it so in my adult life too (not hard, given that I live in the capital of melting pots).

INTERVIEWER

Is journalism your first love, or do you have another passion?
RAMIRO
 

It wasn’t my first love but it should have been. As a child I wanted to be an actor but when I hit puberty my ambitions got thwarted by the usual patriarchally-instilled insecurities about my looks, weight, and general lack of self-worth. I then went and studied advertising but it wasn’t very satisfying as I needed something a little more academic at that point. So, to compensate the lack of enthusiasm for my degree, I started doing a political blog and getting involved with campaigns I always felt an affinity for. Things like justice for Palestinians and an anti-cuts campaign at my university. That then grew into the student movement of 2010/11 where I was the founder and press officer for one of the main campaigns (National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts). I went back to uni in 2010, did a postgrad programme in politics and then a masters in Middle East politics, went to Palestine and Egypt (during the occupation of Tahrir Square) and a few years later got a full time job as a journalist at a small daily called the Morning Star. A week in I thought: “Goddamn! Why haven’t I been doing this all along?!”

INTERVIEWER
Who inspires you, and why? 
RAMIRO

Great journalism inspires me and I think of the greats of old and sometimes wonder if it’s still possible to do that kind of work. Journalists of past and present like Martha Gelhorn, Ryszard Kapuściński, Svetlana Alexievitch, Clare Hollingworth and Paul Mason inspire me every day to speak truth to power.

INTERVIEWER

What is the role of journalists today, in an era of ‘fake news’ and accusations of media bias? 

RAMIRO
 

The role of a journalist at any time is to speak truth to power. To me that means looking at the balance of forces and asking yourself “Who is being exploited, oppressed, or used in this situation?” and then write about it. Much is said about media bias vs unbiased journalism and in the end, you’ll find, the judgement is always in favour of whoever is in control of the narrative. There’s always a bias in journalism because there’s always a bias in our societies. A good journalist asks herself in who’s favour is that bias and writes about what the effects of such bias might be. Who benefits and who suffers under X state policies? Who benefits and who suffers under Y ideology? From there, a journalist’s role is to shine a light on what is in the dark. 

INTERVIEWER

When covering complex political issues and discourse, how do you navigate the challenge between communicating an issue or subject clearly and effectively, while also bringing the necessary balance and nuance and critical thought required to ensure the piece has real genuine value? 

RAMIRO

Good prose is written simply but at length. Unfortunately, it seems that while writing simply is still cherished in our media landscape, length is going increasingly out of style. A dangerous precedent if you ask me. You can’t explain the complexities of war in a 250 word article or in a 2.30min piece. You can’t explore the nuances of the Venezuelan political conundrum in a series of Tweets. We need to start investing in long-form journalism, not only in the case of what is usually called “long reads” but as a matter of journalistic norm. If people will deadscroll through 5min inspirational videos they will watch a 5min piece about Cape Town’s Day Zero. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any personal responsibility as a journalist
RAMIRO
 

Of course. That’s why I refuse to work for xenophobic and migrant-bashing publications (we all know who they are). I wouldn’t go as far as condemning all that do – many colleagues work wherever work is available because they’ve got bills to pay – but given the choice I’d rather not write than enable or legitimise far-right opinions and rhetoric.

INTERVIEWER

To what extent has current political discourse and debate sidelined other important issues facing the world; such as catastrophic climate breakdown?

RAMIRO

I don’t think it has. Not least because the current political discourse might include disgusting people like Viktor Orban and Tommy Robinson, but also includes inspiring voices like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who does speak aplenty about climate and a Green New Deal).

INTERVIEWER

In an age of increasingly low incomes for journalists, and with funding models of traditional media corporations often favouring the large, Murdoch-owned papers over other independent news outlets, how can aspiring journalists break onto the scene while maintaining their journalistic integrity and any moral standards they may need? 

RAMIRO

Alas, it often seems nearly impossible and all the more so for young journalists who aren’t white middle class men  living in London. It’s good that places like the Guardian have programmes targeting this but more needs to be done. I suspect media reform is the way to go in order to tackle all these problems. Not to be too on the nose, but the Labour Party’s proposals on media reform announced last year would be a pretty decent start. 

INTERVIEWER

What’s your analysis of the state of both politics and journalism today? Where are we heading?

RAMIRO
 

God, I’d be a millionaire if I had the answer to that question. Can you imagine what the City would pay me for that sort of consultancy?! 

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you personally? Any exciting projects we should know about? 
RAMIRO
 

I’m doing a lot of exciting things this year, but one of those I’m having a lot of fun at is my show Red Hacks. It’s a series of conversations with renowned journalists about being a leftwing journalist in a neoliberal world and it’s hosted by the Politics Theory Other podcast. The latest episode is with New Statesman deputy editor George Eaton. Do give it a listen 🙂

Quick fire round! 

INTERVIEWER
Vehicle of choice: Brexit battle bus or Corbyn bicycle
RAMIRO
 
Bicycle always! I have my own and it’s called Belinda.
INTERVIEWER
Curl up with a book or head to the movies? 
RAMIRO
 

Going to the movies in London is extortionate (unless you go to Peckhamplex in Peckham – £4.99 any ticket any day), so I’m gonna say curl up with a book. That would probably be my default choice anyway.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic? 
RAMIRO
 

Always the classics. Casablanca is a masterpiece in far more ways than it’s known for. Same could be said about To Have and Have Not (I’m not just stanning for Humphrey Bogart, I promise).

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think people should know more about? 
RAMIRO
 

Erika Lust. She’s a feminist porn film maker and a champion of talking about women’s desire openly and outside of the liberal-cisgendered axis. Plus her stuff is simply beautiful to look at. I’ll be interviewing her soon. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?
RAMIRO

I can sleep anywhere under any circumstances, which is very handy for a journalist. Also, in a better world I would have spent more time singing in a more professional way. My brother (who’s an actual musician) and I have a few amateurish projects but I never seem to have enough time to invest in it properly or as much as I’d like to.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?
RAMIRO
 
Fuckbois. That’s why she was single.
INTERVIEWER
Could you give your top 10 tips for aspiring journalists?
RAMIRO
 
  1. Go to the place, talk to the people. Don’t just write a story from whatever you saw on Twitter or whatever an expert commented on.
  2. Always carry a recorder (most phones will have one nowadays) and don’t forget the batteries (or keeping your phone charged).
  3. When taking pictures in a controversial or dangerous situation always carry two memory cards for your camera. Fill one of them with faff/tourist pictures of the place. Carry the one with the journalistic pictures in your sock or bra. Don’t cross checkpoints or police lines with a camera full of “incriminating” material. 
  4. Always carry cigarettes. Even if you don’t smoke. They’re incredibly handy appeasers, bargaining chips, conversation starters, bonding props. Odd, I know. But it works. 
  5. Learn the art of conversation. Everyone will get the same quotes if they ask the obvious questions. Make it your business to be more than a question machine. Offer something back, even if just a shown interest in what your subject has to say. 
  6. Advice I was given (part I): Start writing your piece as if following the sentence: “Guys, guess what?…”
  7. Advice I was given (part II): Read what you wrote out loud at least once. It really helps you catch otherwise unnoticed typos, grammar errors, generally weird sentences and such.
  8. Invest in a transcription programme (I hate hate hate transcribing). 
  9. Read! Read fiction. Read old books. Read theory. Read as widely as you can. Follow it up by listening to music or watching movies on the same theme (in my family we call this “a festival”). Learn the joys of immersing yourself in something other than what is labelled journalism. Good journalism is done with knowledge wider than that. 
  10. Journalism is team work. George Orwell relied on many many people he never mentioned in his books (true story – not just using this as a metaphor for the case in point). Acknowledge that and use it. Help others and ask for help. Reject the idea that journalism is a rat race. Reject the idea that work is a rat race for that matter. Revel in cooperation. It will make you a better journalist, if not even a better person. 

Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, and a poet

As poetry enjoys somewhat of a renaissance thanks to social media, ever more aspiring writers are using platforms like Twitter to get noticed. With over 100,000 social media followers, Birmingham-based poet Maavi Raja writes about his poetic journey so far.

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When you think about poetry and making something like poetry as a career, or as a full-time passion, money or profit is far from the first thing one thinks about when getting into this field. Poetry begins as a hobby, or a natural inclination to beautify things with something as simple as the words we create, the words we speak, the words we think; manufactured and developed from the feelings we establish.

Of course, there is profit to be made, if you become a best seller. But that’s not what it’s ever been about for me. I developed my love of poetry when I was finishing school – this was 10 years ago and, back then, kids my age saw poetry as soppy and something to be looked down on.  But the last couple of decades have always been about fashion trends and pop culture phenomena. Trying to poke your head up in the classroom and make a case for poetry when everyone is obsessed with the latest celebrity trend, video game, TV show or tech gadget isn’t necessarily the easiest way to make yourself extremely popular.

But, still, poetry was something I loved. To begin with – I read and read whatever poems I could find. Then I started to write my own work – though I didn’t write an original piece until I was 18. For a long time, I tried to hide away what I’d written until my friends discovered them and told me I had a talent. They started asking why I am wasn’t sharing my work and writing with the world. Of course, I had no belief in myself or my capabilities at that point. I never went to college or university, so my level of education was no more than GCSEs.

It’s easy to point at statistics that show that our current social model often leads to inequality – for example, that children from low-income neighbourhoods are far less likely to get a higher education than those from rich areas. But the truth is, as someone so minimally educated, I genuinely never believed I could achieve anything. Yet my friends believed in me and pushed me to make a start and, so, I started to share my work on Twitter.

It was 2012 when I received my first accolade and bit of recognition, and to be quite honest, this was what changed my life completely.

I received celebrity recognition from Kim Kardashian (yes, that Kim Kardashian), who tweeted me and told me she loved my work. This resulted in the building of my own fan base and the accolades just continued to come in, year by year. I received much more celebrity recognition, just recently, from Paris Hilton. It’s a little ironic that the same sort of pop culture trends that were distracting all my classmates from poetry were the ones who helped kick start my poetry career.

In 2016, I was invited to do an interview on BBC radio. I was interviewed about my writing and the purpose of my writing, which is of course, to tend to the younger generation on the experiences I write about. This was prior to my first book “A Poetic Life”.
Now, I’ll admit this book didn’t do well. This was my first attempt and I had no idea what I was doing and the formatting was very poor. This motivated me to improve and do better. The following year, I released “The Heart’s Speech”, which sold over 300 copies with minimal marketing. I’m so thankful for all those readers who bought the book, it’s an incredible feeling to see your hard work connect with other people. This year, 2018, I released “Moonlit Verses” which I like to think is my best work (of course I’d say that, wouldn’t I?). I have no idea how well this will sell; but I can only hope that my work will reach the audience I’m hoping it will.

This year, I’ve also started performing at Poetry Jams organised by the BeatFreeks collective. They host a poetry session on the first Thursday of every month at different venues for a set time. Most recently, it’s being hosted at Waylands Yard.

To be quite honest, I never believed I’d be here today. I sit on 140,000+ followers on Twitter. I have my own author page on Amazon, a verified knowledge panel on google which basically means now, that the internet recognises me and acknowledges me as an established author. I’ve dreamt for something like this for a long time, but I continue to dream and I’ll continue to graft as I always have done and see where my writing will take me in the future.

About the author of this post

Maavi RajaMaavi Raja, 25, is a poet from Birmingham, UK. From the age of 18, Maavi has been writing and sharing his works with the social media world. Inspired and influenced by personal and external experiences, Maavi wants to contribute to the world in his own way. Now author of 3 books, Maavi has amassed over 100,000 followers on Twitter, alongside celebrity recognition and various accolades. Maavi’s dreams have slowly manifested piece by piece and continues to hope they do as he continues to write.

Creatives in profile: interview with Lunar Poetry Podcasts

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David Turner, founder of Lunar Poetry Podcasts. Photo credit: Thom Bartley 

It’s no secret that the team here at Nothing in the Rulebook are always looking out for new and exciting creative projects. So when we stumbled upon the work of the exquisitely excellent Lunar Poetry Podcasts, we immediately wanted to introduce all our fine readers to it, too.

Founded in October 2014 in south-east London, Lunar Poetry Podcasts features discussions, interviews and live recordings with poets in the UK and further afield.  Now based in Bristol, the podcast recently agreed a deal with The British Library which will result in the entire series being archived in their audio archive.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview with the founder of this fabulous podcast, David Turner.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

TURNER

I was born in London, went to secondary school in The Fens and rejected a job offer from The Royal Signals before serving an apprenticeship as a Bench Joiner. This opening sentence can be read, equally, as an explanation and/or an excuse for not having any formal background in Literature.

After my most recent stay in a secure psychiatric unit, in 2014, I founded the online series Lunar Poetry Podcasts in lieu of a place on a creative writing course. In 2018, along with my wife, I founded a second podcast series, a poem a week – as I definitely didn’t already have enough to do!

I’m a poet, though widely unpublished, drawing on my working-class upbringing and experiences as a frequent user of the mental health services, both in south London and the south of Norway.  I can often be found standing in solidarity alongside the good folk of Poetry On The Picket Line.

My ethos? – If the door has been opened for me then I’ll be holding it open for others… or kicking it off its hinges.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

TURNER

Anyone living with a mental illness in the face of social pressures to present themselves as a survivor.

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INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a bit about Lunar Poetry Podcast – what inspired you to first set the podcast up; and how has it developed from then?

TURNER

In the summer of 2014 I began writing reviews of live poetry events for Lunar Poetry Magazine and even with a generous word count of 1500 words it was impossible to cover all of the topics that I wanted to discuss. In the autumn of that year I suggested to the editor, Paul McMenemy, the idea that I could record and publish three conversations with poets and see how popular they proved. My first three recordings were with Pat Cash (founder of Spoken Word London), Helen Mort and three spoken word artists in Stockholm.

Very early on I was attracted by the idea of building a platform that would provide a space for writers who weren’t afforded that space by other mainstream outlets, to talk about their creative process.

Since 2014, the series has developed from a series of interviews conducted solely by me into a series involving guest hosts guiding conversations with editorial autonomy on subjects they feel are important.

INTERVIEWER

What does it take to pull together a literary podcast?

TURNER

At the beginning you only need a basic understanding of what a podcast should be; this knowledge will grow over time and will be specific to the podcast that you’re making. In terms of making a literary podcast my advice would be the same as if you want to be a writer… read. Read. Read.

Basic requirements: a mic, a recorder, a hosting platform. I started off recording into my iPad Mini using a Blue Yeti mic and uploading to YouTube – this isn’t technically a podcast as YouTube doesn’t offer the opportunity to download and doesn’t produce a RSS Feed.

I now record into a Zoom H6 recorder, usually using Røde Lavalier mics, I edit in Reaper (cleaning the audio with iZotope Audio plug-ins), and host all episodes on Soundcloud which then shares with iTunes, Stitcher Radio and Acast.

Pulling together a literary podcast also includes emails… millions of fucking emails!

INTERVIEWER

How do you plan and prepare for each new episode?

TURNER

This has change a lot since 2014. I used to make extensive notes, even going as far as writing loose scripts for each episode. With time and gained experience, though, I’ve come to trust my instincts and ability to guide a conversation and I tend now to go into recordings with few or no notes. I like to be familiar with any collections that may be discussed in interviews but not to the point where my opinion of the work becomes the main focus.

When producing episodes with guest hosts most of my prep involves gauging how confident they are and either reassuring them that everything will turn out fine or simply giving them an outline of how I want the episode to shape up.

On the day of the recording I try to make sure I eat beforehand and stay hydrated as suddenly feeling faint during an interview is a horrible experience.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any other podcasters you listen to regularly for new ideas? Or any like-minded websites that you’d recommend checking out?

TURNER

Page One Podcast is a beautiful insight into the reading habits of a huge number of writers and artists. I absolutely love the Radio 4 podcast, Only Artists. I tend to listen to podcasts as a break from the literature stuff and the four podcasts I’m currently listening to regularly are – The Adam Buxton Podcast, Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Podcast, Imaginary Advice and The Wire: Stripped… you know, because I’m a 36-year-old white man.

Websites? And Other Poems, Proletarian Poetry and Hotel.

INTERVIEWER

What does the average day look like to you?

TURNER

Up until last week I worked full-time in a caravan factory, repairing damp caravans but I mutually agreed with the employment agency that that particular zero-hours contract wasn’t working for either of us. I’m now on an endless battle to not lose myself on YouTube while I look for part-time work that will allow me to pay my rent and produce the podcast.

A day of editing involves: coffee, a run-through of the audio (usually 90 mins total) on Reaper which takes around three hours, lunch and then another run through the audio on Reaper (another three hours). I’ll do this twice for each episode before reaching the point of wanting to dig my eyeballs out with a teaspoon.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a podcast should be for? Why are they important?

TURNER

I’m really trying not to sound like a knob here but a podcast should fulfil whatever the expectations are of the listener. If the listener wants to be distracted or find some form of escapism then that’s what the podcast should deliver. Similarly, if the listener wants in-depth engagement with political debate then this should be the producer’s goal.

I don’t believe that podcasts are inherently important, though what they do that is different from the radio, for example, is allow producers to focus on niche subjects in a way that isn’t available to mainstream media channels. I suppose this in itself is what is important, and a number of podcasts have proven that there is a desire from listeners to engage with nuanced and focused programming.

INTERVIEWER

Obviously, the rise of the internet has seen a big culture shift in the way we communicate. What role do you see podcasts playing in this new “digital era”?

TURNER

I understand very little about this digital era outside of the very narrow thing that I do so can’t really answer that. I think, in general, podcasters aren’t very good at answering that question as what most of us do is force an analogue process out through a digital platform. Two people who certainly could answer this question more deeply (or at least have the experience to think about it properly) are Matthew Plummer-Fernandez and Alison Parrish.

INTERVIEWER

When there are so many podcasts, and so many different voices speaking at once – how do you try to make your voices heard – how do you cut through the babble?

TURNER

This is probably the point at which social media and promotion are at their most important. Trying to identify where there may be opportunities for cross-promotion, for example. Did the conversation cover mental health issues, and would mental health charities be interested in sharing the episode? Did your guest talk about their class identity and would specific unions or organisations be interested in promoting the discussion?

I was also lucky enough to be invited to record four live interviews at this year’s Verve Poetry Festival. Presenting the podcast series to a live literature audience was a wonderful opportunity and I saw a definite spike in listening numbers immediately after the festival.

I’m also hoping to have a table at this year’s Poetry Book Fair with the aim to just hand out loads of fliers and chat to visitors about the series.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the main challenges you face?

TURNER

Raising awareness of podcasts in general and getting other literature/poetry organisations to realise the value of series like LPP.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

TURNER

The ability to negotiate a way around the question, “why the fuck am I doing this?”

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for the podcast? Any exciting projects or episodes in the pipeline?

TURNER

I’m currently in the process of negotiating a paid mentoring project in which I’ll support some young literature producers, here in Bristol, in developing and producing their own podcast focusing on BME poets in the UK.

2018 will see me continuing to archive LPP’s entire archive within The British Library’s Sound & Drama Department. This is a really exciting opportunity as it’s still unusual for podcasts to be archived in this way, and I’m really happy to have enabled over 200 poets to get recordings of and discussions around their work housed in an internationally famous institution.

There’s another brilliant project in the pipeline which I can’t talk about just yet but has so far involved compiling a list of poets in sort of a fantasy poetry league-style team sheet before emailing them all an invitation. More on this over the next couple of months on our website.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in six words?

TURNER

It’s certainly possible, though ultimately pointless.

INTERVIEWER

What are your 5 – 10 top tips for aspiring podcasters?

TURNER

  • Join the ‘Podcasters Support Group’ on Facebook
  • Remember that you will never feel ‘ready to start’
  • If you can’t afford your own mic/recorder then ask someone if you can borrow their equipment (while they supervise). Podcasters are a very friendly bunch.
  • Your podcast artwork needs to be 1500×1500 in size in order to be accepted by iTunes.
  • The best way to record a remote/skype/international interview is for your guest to record themselves and then send you their audio. It is an unnecessary stress to rely on two internet connections for a clean recording.
  • LISTEN TO YOUR GUEST. LISTEN TO YOUR GUEST. LISTEN TO YOUR GUEST.
  • Make the podcast that makes you happy.

National Poetry day: the best of Twitter

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28 September marks National Poetry Day. Across the UK, poetic events are being hosted as part of the annual celebration that inspires people throughout the country to enjoy, discover and share poems. Everyone is invited to join in, whether by organising events, displays, competitions or by simply posting favourite lines of poetry on social media using #nationalpoetryday.

Days like this harness the power of the humble hashtag to great effect. As such, we have spent our days hard at work not quite working; but instead scrolling through the annals of the Twittersphere to compile some of the best Tweets of National Poetry Day.

Enjoy!

  1. Downing Street’s Larry the cat tries his hand at poetry…

Larry the cat

 

  1. Technically Ron reminds us of some home truths…

Technically Ron haiku

 

  1. The problems of autocorrect…

Amanda poetry day.png

 

  1. Poetry can be confusing…

Joe poetry day

 

  1. SPOILER alert: Tyrion on the ending of Game of Thrones…

Tyrion.png

 

  1. Advice on how to live on a narrow boat…

how to live on a narrow boat.png

 

  1. Blackadder’s Baldrick could be a greater war poet than Wilfred Owen…

Blackadder.png

 

  1. Skelator really doesn’t like He-Man…

Skelator.png

 

  1. Poetry from the London Underground…

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  1. Professor Snape loves combining poetry with Harry Potter puns…

Professor Snape

 

Want more poetry? Why not check out our poems created from the verbatim comments of Donald Trump

#Blink! A new Twitter contest for writers

Writers! Twitterers! Creatives! Social Media Gurus! There’s a new competition just for you.

The fabulous literary publisher and resource for writers, Tethered By Letters, has launched a new Twitter contest.

If you think you can tell a story in 140 characters or fewer, TBL want to hear from you!

Every two weeks, an acclaimed judge will choose the winning story. The winner will receive a free digital copy of F(r)iction, and potential publication of the Tweet in a future issue of F(r)iction.

Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it! Tweet your tiny narratives using the hashtag #BlinkTBL, and be sure to check the @TethrdByLettrs and @FrictionSeries Twitter pages for start dates, deadlines, and judging info!

 

Creatives in profile: Interview with the Extra Secret Podcast

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“A podcast should be for anything you want it do be” Extra Secret Podcast. 

Just over two years ago, two men had an idea. It was a humble idea. It was a bold idea. It was almost as a good an idea as building your very own robot butler to help you run your high school full of teenage clones of famous historical figures (but nothing could be quite as good as that idea).

Their names were Eric and Dan, and for the past two years they have been the masterminds behind a truly awesome, and also beautifully simple, podcast – the Extra Secret Podcast, to be precise.

Now, being a secret, we wouldn’t want to give too much away at this point, except to tell you to check out Eric’s fantastic list of tips for aspiring podcasters.

It’s an honor to introduce this detailed interview.

 

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourselves, your background and ethos.

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

DAN: I was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan and have lived all over the Metro Detroit Area. I also lived in Madison, Wisconsin. Background: Never graduated college, went to a trade school and edited TV commercials for a number of years. I moved to Wisconsin where I became a professional body piercer for six years. Both of those things made me exceptionally unhappy so then I moved back to Michigan where I got a job at a comic book shop. If you listen to the podcast I’m notoriously out of touch with what’s going on in the world, so Eric finds things that get me worked up. Ultimately, I’m not a super angry person about everything but I do get frustrated with the world

ERIC : I’ve lived in Michigan my whole life. I went to elementary (primary) school, high school, and some of college with Dan. Ultimately, I graduated from Wayne State University with a degree in English and promptly got an office job that didn’t remotely have anything to do with my degree. I grew up on a steady diet of comics, cartoons, and sci-fi and that’s pretty much stuff that I’m still interested in to this day.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

ERIC: I would have to say that a lot of my friends inspire me. I know it seems like an easy answer but I’ve somehow managed to be in close proximity to several musicians, visual artists, other podcasters or performers that do really amazing work. So I kind of feel like the odd man out (laughs). My friend Dot Org composed our theme music and my cousin composed the music for our After Dark episodes. I’m a big fan of British writer Warren Ellis, he’s always doing something interesting. My parents are some of the funniest people I know whether they know it or not.

Oh, and Supreme Leader Trump. All hail Trump! That last one was only half true. I live in constant fear of waking up this November to discover that our portion of the world has gone Mad Max. So there’s a definite drive for me to get as much good stuff produced before the world ends.

DAN: That’s a tough one… I read a lot. So, a lot of stuff that inspire me are things I read in comic books which I know can be seen as childish. I read a lot of stories of hope, lot of stories of not giving up, things of that nature. With my background of having a few problems in my life, it’s good for me to read those sorts of things. And it definitely helps when I get other people interested in the same stuff. Feels good.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a bit about the Extra Secret Podcast – what inspired you to first set the podcast up; and how has it developed from then?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

DAN: A long time ago when I was still in Madison, I had started listening to some of director Kevin Smith’s podcasts. I really enjoyed what they did. It was just them having a conversation. I had come back to Michigan a few times and me and Eric had conversations about starting a podcast and doing it over Skype; but it never really came together until I moved back. I had another co-host lined up back in Madison but the conversation wasn’t there, it wasn’t really working. How has it grown? We’re less nervous now. We have a good rhythm. We’re good at taking seemingly innocuous things and filling an hour long show with our brand of weirdness.

ERIC: Some of my friends were podcasting, I loved what they were doing and I wanted in on the action. That sweet podcast action. As Dan said, we talked about starting our own podcast and it finally came to be when he moved back to Michigan. Since we’ve been doing it the format hasn’t changed much. We used to do four to five episodes a month, but we were both starting to burn out and finding the time became difficult. Twice a month is much more manageable. On occasion I’ll do an Extra Secret Podcast: After Dark episode which is just me and a rotating co-host. Sometimes it could be a friend or mine or someone I want to interview. Those are a nice break from the regular format, but the core show will always be me and Dan.

INTERVIEWER

How do you plan and prepare for each new episode?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

ERIC: Usually, the second we stop recording I’ll think of three other things I wanted to talk about. In the time between recordings I’ll keep my eyes open for funny news stories that I think we’ll be able to squeeze some humor out of. Other times I’ll have something weird or funny happen to me that will make for a good story on the podcast. I know it sounds cliché, but I carry a notebook and pen with me at all times just in case something happens and I have to commit it to paper ASAP. It also helps to structure the upcoming episodes so our conversations have some semblance of direction.

DAN: (laughs) Eric tells me what we may talk about! Basically the first half of the show is news, notes, gripes; the back half of the podcast is a bit more structured with a set topic. Eric is really the producer of the show, he gives me some direction. I’m notoriously forgetful from years of past substance abuse problems so he has to constantly remind me. I usually do some prep right before the show so I’m excited to talk about things. But the bulk of the heavy lifting is done by Eric.

INTERVIEWER

What does the average day look like to you?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

ERIC: I’m usually up around 4 or 5 AM everyday, which is awful. I’ll check my news feeds to see what’s going on in the world while I get ready for work. My work day usually starts around 8 and I get out for the day around 5 PM. My downtime is spent reading, catching up on the handful of TV shows I watch, and listening to music and so on. I’m very much a homebody, which a polite way of saying “hermit.”

DAN: I get up around 8 AM, feed the dogs, eat breakfast, get to my shop around 10:30. It depends on the day. There’s always something new coming into the comic shop so it keeps it fresh, something to look forward to. I’ve never had a day where I don’t want to be there. I love working there. My boss is cool and so are the customers. I don’t watch a ton of TV aside from stuff we discuss on the podcast. Pretty much my days revolve around nerd shit.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a podcast should be for? Why are they important?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

DAN: I think a podcast should be for anything you want it to be. The great thing about podcasts is it’s a very open-ended thing. These days with people wanting to be “YouTube famous” or “podcast famous”…if you want to try and do it for a living that’s cool. But the problem with that is that you eventually start sounding like everyone else, because you’re trying to broaden your appeal. Podcasts are important because it’s one of the last things you can do that has no censorship. You can do whatever you want, you know? We’ve never been censored. We’ve talked about all sorts of weird stuff on the show and that’s not something you’ll hear on mainstream TV or radio. It’s very important for podcasts to have that freedom.

ERIC: I agree with Dan, it can be anything you want it to be. We generally keep things pretty light but on occasion we do get serious and talk about things that are bothering us. Medical issues, depression, and so on. I think podcasts are important because it’s a creative outlet. For me, I don’t have the time to sit down and write like I used to. I’d love to be able to sit down and write for eight hours each day but it’s not in the cards right now. But I do have time to sit down with my friend for an hour every couple weeks and put on a show. It certainly scratches that creative itch.

INTERVIEWER

Obviously, the rise of the internet has seen a big culture shift in the way we communicate. What role do you see podcasts playing in this new “digital era”?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

ERIC: To me, it’s almost like a resurgence of the Golden Age of Radio. There’s this new medium out there that’s potentially without limits. I really dig that shows like Welcome to Night Vale and Thrilling Adventure Hour are essentially just new radio plays where the listener has to use their imagination to fill in the blanks. And that applies to other podcasts too. There are podcasts for virtually any subject and I think that it makes for a more engaged listener.

DAN: It’s really kind of replacing radio. People are getting bored a little bit with pop music or talk radio. It all bleeds together. With a podcast you can listen to someone on the other end of the globe. We’ve never been closer together than we are now. Sometimes uncomfortably so.

INTERVIEWER

When there are so many podcasts, and so many different voices speaking at once – how do you try to make your voices heard?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

DAN: We’ve never cared about that. We have never decided that we’re going to go out and make people listen to us. We don’t advertise. It’s tough to reach a vast audience without dumping a ton of money into it. Good content will propel the show forward. Ultimately if you’re trying to do a podcast to get famous, have a million listeners…you’re doing it wrong.

ERIC: Yeah, we’re really just doing this for us. Making each other laugh is pretty much the mission and if anyone is listening, that’s really incidental. We have a small (very small) audience and they seem to tolerate what we’re doing so we’re happy with that.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the main challenges you face?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

ERIC: Finding the time to record is always fun. Keeping a regular schedule for episodes can be difficult as well. When we stopped doing weekly episode we were shooting for the 15th and 30th of the month but even then we had to revise that to a “twice a month” schedule. I always worry that we may repeat ourselves, or that we’re getting complacent, or we’re just straight up boring.

DAN: Time. Getting the energy to do it. We used to do it weekly and that got to be very taxing. We were worried about running out of thing to talk about. We worried about not having enough time to do research for things. Finding quality stuff to talk about that’s not the same as everybody else is nothing thing. We try to focus a bit more on weird news sources and stuff that interests us. Stuff we’re passionate about.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

ERIC: For me, it’s just the art of making anything. Admittedly, It’s a pretty broad definition. But I do think there has to be some kind of intent behind the action of making something. It should evoke larger ideas. For our podcast we’re creating a larger narrative about two assholes forever trapped in each other’s orbit, two grown men barely in control of their own lives.

DAN: I’m not really much of an artist in the traditional sense. When I was younger I was into art and photography so I probably would’ve had a better answer for that then (laughs). Now, to me, whatever you decide to go out and do… I’m very literal in the sense that creativity is just creating. That’s me. I wish I had some mystical answer for you but that’s not how I am.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for the podcast? Any exciting projects or episodes in the pipeline?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

DAN: We always talk about Motor City Comic Con in May. That’s always a good time. Mostly we take it week by week. We don’t tend to do big projects because we don’t have a ton of time on our hands.

ERIC: I’m sure I’ll be doing more After Dark episodes in the future, I’m always looking for interesting people to talk to. In the past I’ve had conversations with the musician Brook Pridemore and artist/storyteller Morgan Pielli both of which are archived at extrasecretpodcast.com!

The podcaster’s guide to the galaxy

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Eric Henson, one half of the Extra Secret Podcast, introduces us to the world of podcasting, and gives his top tips for starting your own podcast.

The fine folks here at Nothing In The Rule Book asked if we were interested in contributing some tips on how one would go about starting their own podcast. Since we’re not ones to shy away from reaching potential new listeners, we (over) enthusiastically agreed. Hello. How are you? You look well.

We’ve been doing the Extra Secret Podcast for just over two years now and I’m pretty sure you’ve never heard of us. So, if you’re reading this expecting some top tips on how to become the next Nerdist, 99% Invisible, or even Serial you’ve come to the wrong place. There are scores of articles out there that deal with the technical side of setting up a podcast. This isn’t one of them. We’re here to give you some pointers on the “whys” of podcasting.

About three years ago, Dan came to me and said, “I want to do a podcast and I want you to co-host it with me.”  To which I responded, “FINALLY.” Then I found out that I wasn’t his first choice, which I was strangely okay with. I then began to ask some of the big questions, which we’ll get to in a moment.

Before we get started I have a confession: The Extra Secret Podcast isn’t my fist podcast. Ten years ago I did one with another friend and it was, to be quite honest, terrible. We recorded off of a tiny stick microphone, there were long awkward pauses during conversation, and it lasted for about 15 minutes. I think we had a grand total of five listeners. After that crushing failure I resolved never to podcast again unless I could do it “right.”

On to the tips!

  • Have a format: I hate to break it to you, but “two or more people droning on and on about something” isn’t a format. For our show we’ve settled on two segments separated by a musical break. Generally we talk about things that have been in the news for the first segment, take a short break, and return to talk about a predetermined topic.
  • Have a schedule: Having a consistent publishing schedule helps keep listeners around. When we started we were on a weekly schedule. I still have no idea how we were able to come up with new things to speak about each week for an entire year and not end up completely burned out. Eventually, we switched to a twice a month format and that seems to keep it fresh. I’ve listened to some podcasts that publish whenever the mood strikes and that’s all well and good. But when months go by with no new podcasts, your listeners may start to wonder if you’ve quit and not bothered to tell them.
  • You do you: There’s no point if doing a show if you’re just going to copy someone else’s style. If you’ve made the decision to inflict yourself on the internet, you had better be doing it in your own voice. Bring something unique to the table.
  • Get some decent equipment: When we started, Dan had purchased a nice mixing board and some XLR microphones. Super professional; but not required to have a halfway decent sounding podcast. There have been a few other podcasts I’ve listened to where it sounds like they use a tin can telephone to capture all their audio. Dreadful. The mixer and microphones were nice but they were tough to transport and time consuming to set up. Eventually we settled on two Blue Snowball USB microphones which are plug-and-play and relatively inexpensive.
  • Keep it brief: We try to keep our recordings limited to about an hour. Most listeners will be digesting your podcast while commuting, endlessly processing data at their desk job, or peddling away on a stationary bike at the gym. Anything longer than an hour and you’re starting to crossover into audiobook territory. If you have a topic that warrants more than an hour’s worth of conversation don’t be afraid to split the episode into two parts. It will give your listeners something to look forward to.
  • It’s not what you say, but how you say it: I know, I know… Swearing is fun. On our podcast we do tend to , but not at the expense of the overall message of what we’re trying to say. If you listen back to a recording and find that you’re using expletives as filler words, you may want to make a concerted effort to avoid that.
  • Be ready to suck: Before we even published our first episode, Dan and I sat down and hashed out what we wanted to talk about. We recorded a pilot episode that we never published (and will NEVER publish) to get comfortable in front of the microphones and get a rhythm down. And even when we did publish our first episode it was still a bit clunky. It’s a work in progress. Still.
  • Is this thing on?: Once you’ve published some episodes, the hosting site (we use Blubrry for ours and it’s great) you use can most likely provide you with some kind of data regarding how many downloads you’ve amassed to date. You may want to sit down when you look at them the first time. And after you subtract yourself and your cohost you may want to lay down. Depending on the level of promotion you’ve put into your podcast you most likely won’t be doing crazy download numbers.
  • Shameless self-promotion: Tell friends, tell family, tell anyone you think may be interested in your podcast. Some of them may actually Start a Twitter account for the podcast. Twitter is good for connecting with listeners and getting new ones. If there’s a particular topic you’re discussing on your new episode, hashtag it. You’d be surprised what people notice. In fact, my skillful use of #CloneHigh got us noticed by this very site! Early on in the show, our musical interludes were often local bands that we’re fans of and retweets from them would never fail to give our numbers a bump.
  • Why bother?: The reason We’ve been doing this for so long is because it’s something we enjoy doing. It’s also cheaper than going to therapy. At the very core of the show it’s really about two friends sitting down and having a conversation and working through some things. It’s not about having tons of listeners and it never was. The best we can hope for is that someone listens to what we’re saying and that it connects with them on some level.

Now, there’s nothing is this rulebook that says you have to abide by anything I just wrote. Go forth and podcast!

About the author of this post

IMG_4166E.A. Henson is one half of the Extra Secret Podcast. When not podcasting he is a mild-mannered worker at a major multinational corporation. He lives in Michigan.

Thanks to chrisandtanner.com. You’re the meaning in our lives, you’re the inspiration.

We’re breaking up: how technology is dampening our creativity

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Reading the wonderful exchange of letters between Pulitzer Prize winning author, Willa Cather, and her friend and fellow writer, Sarah Jewett, one is struck immediately by how rare such thoughtful examples of communication have now become. Where once it was common to place such great thought and care into penned – or pencilled – correspondence, we now find ourselves changed by our electronic, immediate communications.

Why is it that our personal identities seem to shift when moving between these mediums? And what does it mean for us as individuals, and as a species?

These questions have in part been answered by Rebecca Sonit, one of the most incisive thinkers and exquisite essayists of our time, in her essay “We’re breaking up: Noncommunication in the Silicon Age”. Indeed, Solnit believes this shift and change began at a very specific point in the summer of 1995. She writes:

“On or around June 1995, human character changed. Or rather, it began to undergo a metamorphosis that is still not complete, but is profound — and troubling, not least because it is hardly noted. When I think about, say, 1995, or whenever the last moment was before most of us were on the Internet and had mobile phones, it seems like a hundred years ago. Letters came once a day, predictably, in the hands of the postal carrier. News came in three flavors — radio, television, print — and at appointed hours. Some of us even had a newspaper delivered every morning.”

Newspapers every morning! An unbelievable concept for so many of us living in our digital bubbles.

Some here might logically play the part of Lawrence Robertson – the fictitious CEO of USR, the massive Robotics conglomerate of I-Robot – who asks “Would you ban the internet just to keep the libraries open?” And sceptically suggest that worrying over technological progress has been the past-time of thinkers since time-immemorial. Italo Calvino, after all, bemoaned newspapers themselves as a worrisome distraction from what was really important: and one twelfth century Zen monk railed against books because they were “annoying”.

On the shredding of the fabric of time

Yet at the heart of Solnit’s argument is a discussion of the far more insidious effects of our modern communication technologies on the human psyche. These subtle changes, she argues, are beginning to shred the very fabric of time – or, at least, our perceptions of it – and beginning to blanket our daily lives and dictate the rhythm with which we live:

“Those mail and newspaper deliveries punctuated the day like church bells. You read the paper over breakfast. If there were developments you heard about them on the evening news or in the next day’s paper. You listened to the news when it was broadcast, since there was no other way to hear it. A great many people relied on the same sources of news, so when they discussed current events they did it under the overarching sky of the same general reality. Time passed in fairly large units, or at least not in milliseconds and constant updates. A few hours wasn’t such a long time to go between moments of contact with your work, your people, or your trivia.

[…]

The bygone time had rhythm, and it had room for you to do one thing at a time; it had different parts; mornings included this, and evenings that, and a great many of us had these schedules in common. I would read the paper while listening to the radio, but I wouldn’t check my mail while updating my status while checking the news sites while talking on the phone. Phones were wired to the wall, or if they were cordless, they were still housebound. The sound quality was usually good. On them people had long, deep conversations of a sort almost unknown today, now that phones are used while driving, while shopping, while walking in front of cars against the light and into fountains. The general assumption was that when you were on the phone, that’s all you were.”

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger.

Solnit considers how correspondence changed from the thrilling event of receiving a letter — “the paper and handwriting told you something, as well as the words” — to the task-oriented pragmatism of fielding a demand or relaying one for the recipient to field:

“Letters morphed into emails, and for a long time emails had all the depth and complexity of letters. They were a beautiful new form that spliced together the intimacy of what you might write from the heart with the speed of telegraphs. Then emails deteriorated into something more like text messages… Text messages were bound by the limits of telegrams — the state-of-the-art technology of the 1840s — and were almost as awkward to punch out. Soon phone calls were made mostly on mobile phones, whose sound quality is mediocre and prone to failure altogether (“you’re breaking up” or “we’re breaking up” is the cry of our time) even when one or both speakers aren’t multitasking. Communication began to dwindle into peremptory practical phrases and fragments, while the niceties of spelling, grammar, and punctuation were put aside, along with the more lyrical and profound possibilities. Communication between two people often turned into group chatter: you told all your Facebook friends or Twitter followers how you felt, and followed the popularity of your post or tweet. Your life had ratings.”

But, says the content marketer, the SEO optimiser, the social media specialist, the digital executive, the blogger, the vlogger, the Instagram star, the Twitter hero (incidentally the new cast of the upcoming Breakfast Club sequel) – But, but there are so many benefits of our modern communication technologies! They are democratic! We can create our news ourselves! We self-publish, self-publicise! We spread ideas! Railing against change is as futile as Cnut trying to hold back the sea.

It’s true that there are a great many benefits – or at least, perceived benefits – of our modern communication technologies. Not least of which (of course) is this site itself (not to brag or anything), which without the immense power of the Internet would simply be a group of creative giraffe-aficionados writing long letters to each other that may never be read by more than a dozen souls. But perhaps there are costs to these new technologies that outweigh their benefits. Consider, as Solnit does, the following:

“Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the nuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deeper zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.”

Digital isolation

A familiar concept in this digital era is the strange isolation that modern communication models create for individuals – distracting them from real life and real-lived conversations and human communication. This is perhaps best depicted in the increasingly familiar sight of a group of people seated together at a restaurant, each staring into their phones instead of conversing with one another.

But what do such scenes mean? Perhaps we are only just realising that human beings are less interesting in person than they are online. Or perhaps it is symptomatic of a restlessness which has seized so many of us – a fear of missing out on news or updates; or else caused by a new era in which we are continually distracted from real life. Solnit suggests it is “an anxiety about keeping up, about not being left out or getting behind.”

Of course, the tragedy here is that, however discomfiting such anxieties are, the sense of missing out is in fact essential to a full life – and indeed a creative life. As psychoanalyst Adam Phillips notes in his book “Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life”:

“Our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.”

And something as simple as heading outside to sit quietly by ourselves and embracing boredom can in fact enhance the creative’s ability to produce new art, new thought, new ideas and formulate better answers to the questions they contend with as they attempt to write their novels, or paint their masterpieces.

Yet the new mediums of the digital era seek to disable this, and distract us. Our time no longer comes in large, focused blocks, but rather in fragments and shards. As Solnit notes: “We’re shattered. We’re breaking up.”

She continues:

“It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone. The fine art of doing nothing in particular, also known as thinking, or musing, or introspection, or simply moments of being, was part of what happened when you walked from here to there, alone, or stared out the train window, or contemplated the road, but the new technologies have flooded those open spaces. Space for free thought is routinely regarded as a void and filled up with sounds and distractions.”

When we are constantly driven to check our social media apps for notifications, and compose the shortest and most succinct emails and social media statuses, which, by design, must be created almost without thought or any real deliberation or consideration – we are distanced from the ability to think hard about something for the length of time necessary to ponder important questions. We can no longer contemplate the essential mysteries of the universe – or express these creatively – when we are too busy trying to write a funny tweet about Donald Trump in 140 characters or reply to Jeremy in HR with an email that treads that fine-line between snappy and rude.

Such a scenario was perceived way back in 1948 by Henry Beston – a rather adroit bridge-builder between humanity and nature – whose bewitching work “Northern Farm” features a timeless meditation on the relationship between humanity and technology:

“What has come over our age is an alienation from Nature unexampled in human history. It has cost us our sense of reality and all but cost us our humanity. With the passing of a relation to Nature worthy both of Nature and the human spirit, with the slow burning down of the poetic sense together with the noble sense of religious reverence to which it is allied, man has almost ceased to be man. Torn from earth and unaware, having neither the inheritance and awareness of man nor the other sureness and integrity of the animal, we have become vagrants in space, desperate for the meaninglessness which has closed about us. True humanity is no inherent and abstract right but an achievement, and only through the fullness of human experience may we be as one with all who have been and all who are yet to be, sharers and brethren and partakers of the mystery of living, reaching to the full of human peace and the full of human joy.”

The context of reality: straight outta context

The loss of our sense of reality, which Beston touches upon, of course can be traced through the many existentialist writings and musings of essayists and commentators, writers and artists throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

In 1980, for instance, George W.S. Trow penned his seminal essay, ‘Within the Context of No-Context’, a terrifyingly prescient doomsday prophecy about the corrosive effects of electronic media.

Of course, what is so worrying for a modern reader of Trow’s essay is just how prescient the essay is. It predates the blogosphere and social media. It’s pre 24 hour News, pre-reality show. Yet Trow still sees cognitive and psychological destruction at the heart of ‘new media’, which Trow suggests exists solely to “establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no-context and to chronicle it.”

Just as the television Trow derides holds “no history”, so too do modern forms of communication and new digital technologies bring with them nothing constructive, but rather only destructive: the annihilation of cognitive thought and well-argued expression in favour of those curt emails and meaningless social media status updates. In this world, it is reality, as well as our own minds and thoughts, which is fractured, which is lost.

Reclaiming reality

To reclaim reality, and once again piece together our lives and sense of time, which have been fractured by the new digital technology, perhaps the answer is to slow everything down. To contemplate and articulate the value of the real world outside electronic chatter and distraction. To find alternatives. To put the world and our lives back together again.

As Beston writes, this may begin outside:

“Oh, work that is done in freedom out of doors, work that is done with the body’s and soul’s goodwill, work that is an integral part of life and is done with friends — is there anything so good?”

So, if you’re still reading this, close your internet browser and throw your smartphone in the nearest stream. Quit your office job and see if the local farmer has any jobs going. You never know, it might just give you the ideas and freedom you need to finish writing that novel you’ve been working on.

 

Creatives In Profile: Interview with Mike Dodson

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Creativity, in all its myriad different forms, can take us to the edge of the world and look beyond. It can inspire, inform, influence. Used in the right way, it can illuminate the path ahead.

Because of this, Nothing in the Rulebook has been founded to emphasise such creativity. Yet we’re also here to highlight not just works of creativity; but the creative individuals who write our stories and our poetry; take our photographs; create our artworks.

Our new ‘Creatives in profile’ interview series offers creatives the opportunity to discuss their life and art at length. And it is an honour to introduce our latest interview – with writer, editor and photographer, Mike Dodson.

Mike runs Vagabond Images – his photographic work, which is used by myriad different organisations from the BBC to Pearson. Cutting his teeth as a copywriter and editor, he wrote in various wage brackets for various publications of various respectability,including Beware The Cat, Time Out, the Easy Jet in-flight magazine, and Square Meal. He now writes short stories, maintains a blog, and continues to contribute to a range of organs, from Viz and Private Eye to the Metro newspaper and sundry other voices.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle.

DODSON

Via quite a significantly misspent youth in the punk, goth and metal scenes, I developed a strong desire to write, and somehow ended up in London studying Media Communications at Scumbag College. I fell out of there with half a pretend degree, and found myself surfing the very edge of the dot-com boom as a copywriter, where for three years companies fell apart around me, until I settled down into an editorship for a while. My father introduced me to photography in the early part of the new century, and, hindered by a complete inability to draw, photography became my medium of choice.

I still live in London, now with my beautiful wife Cat, and together we drink too much and associate with misfits. I’m a hugely disappointed, hopelessly romantic, pathetically optimistic misanthrope, and think that humanity has so much potential if only it just decided to apply itself.

INTERVIEWER

How do your passions for writing and photography complement one another?

DODSON

A lot of my writing is relatively visual in its discourse. I’m quite passionate about music, and my tastes are influenced hugely by detailed and coherent lyrical content, which has in turn influenced both my writing and photography. I think generally the two should stand separately beyond children’s books, although I know they don’t. A photograph should tell you of itself just as writing should; good writing should not need illustration, and good photography should not need description.

Berlin-Hauptbahn. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

Berlin-Hauptbahn. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any other creative passions?

DODSON

I used to hit things and make a noise behind some musicians for a while, and retain an irritating habit of playing nearby surfaces when I’m thinking. I retain my interest in music, but of late I’ve become interested increasingly in moving photographic composition, and will be developing my work there in the near future.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

DODSON

Anyone I’m able to or think I could have a drink with. I dislike pomposity, but I’m a fan of experimentation – one of the main influences I’ve taken in photography is perhaps Roy Lichtenstein’s snapshot/comic frame approach. The concept of framing a moment intrigues me – the interesting side of that most tedious of conversations ‘Yah, but what IS art?’

I like descriptive and passionate song lyrics, the clean lines of art deco, and the rebellion of punk. In terms of people, I’ve written some terrible, terrible poetry at girls I’ve wanted to sleep with – does that count?

'Boy'. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

‘Boy’. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

INTERVIEWER

Your work as Vagabond Images highlights numerous different photographic themes – from landscape pictures of British and American countryside, to intense urban scenes, sinister backdrops packed with brooding emotion, as well as imaginative profiles and shots of the people who live in all these different worlds. What catches your eye as a photographer?

DODSON

I’m quite intrigued by the arse-end of capitalism; The Man Behind The Curtain. Money is actually very, very weird if you look at it for more than a few seconds, and the concepts it relies on are quite literally surreal. This seems to me to be at significant odds with our nature as animals, and of all the places in the world to view this, one of the world’s leading financial capitals is one – have you ever been to The City at the weekend? It’s a ghost town – the quietest place you could imagine. Then at 7am on a Monday morning it’s covered in people with globally-reaching influence.

I’m quite a fan of high contrast images, as I find them easier to understand and digest than overly busy or detailed compositions. Contrary to this, however, the romantic in me finds open landscapes wonderfully desolate, and one of the things I like about the USA is how absolutely vast it is. In America you can drive for hours and hours – quite literally – through nothing very much at all, seeing absolutely no one, and getting absolutely nowhere significant. I love to just sit on a train or coach, staring out of the window, getting lost. This discourse applies to Europe too (With the notable exception of the Berlin-Warsaw train journey, which – other than the changing signage – is singularly crap).

'Accountant': Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

‘Accountant’: Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

INTERVIEWER

In Georege Perec’s ‘La Disparation’ the question is asked ‘Why do you take photographs so constantly, so obsessively? And the reply returns ‘so that I’ll see what I’ve seen’. Why do you take photographs? What draws you to the form?

DODSON

Photographs provide the opportunity for further exploration and re-examination, presentation and composition provide the opportunity for interpretation of a subject, and looking through a viewfinder makes whatever you see into a potential picture. In terms of form – form is often a fleeting moment – with people I like to fire off a lot of candid shots when people are socialising, as micro expressions can be so fleeting and yet so very powerful – it just takes that one pause to convey the truth, that one look when they both get the joke, or the glance that betrays their true feelings.

For architecture, high contrast is often visually arresting, and thus useful for that type of shot. The great thing about architecture is that it is static, and since so much of form can be dictated by lines, architectural photography allows you to fully explore these.

INTERVIEWER

The use of mirror images is used frequently in your work; as are moments of contrast – for example between darker and lighter shades – do you believe that there is a mirror image to everything? Is this world always a ‘world of opposites’? What role does juxtaposition play in art and – indeed – life?

DODSON

A mirror is a magical item – it provides us with a view of the unseen.  As animals our primary sense is vision, and a mirror simultaneously makes us more powerful, by providing us with greater visual knowledge, and potentially more vulnerable from the unknown and potentially threatening.  It expands our vision; it provides us with a glimpse into another, unseeable world. The metaphors a mirror can provide are easy to relate to through knowledge of the other – good/evil, light/dark, obscure/clear, etc.

It can also be used to great effect as a cheap trick in horror films, which – to Cat’s delight – I fall for. Every. Single. Time.

'Glastonbury Thorn'. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

‘Glastonbury Thorn’. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

INTERVIEWER

Your compilation of writings, are – in the way they so often pieces of ‘micro non-fiction’ – almost photographic. They provide glimpses and snapshots into real, lived events. Do you think your writing process is photographic?

DODSON

Photography translates literally as ‘Drawing with light’. If I had any ability I would draw (my artistic talent has a significant blind-hedgehog-in-a-bag aspect to it, and thus descriptive writing and photography have been my workarounds). I’ve always been intrigued by capturing that one moment, the perfect timing, and in the climax of the story. Just as a play is constructed of ‘scenes’, ultimately everything conceived visually is a type of photograph, and writing is a way of drawing pictures in other people’s minds.

INTERVIEWER

Images and words read differently, they may not fuse, but they co-exist. Do you think there is a disjunction between word and image? What do you make of the relationship between what is written and what is seen?

DODSON

While a photograph may capture the moment wonderfully, it won’t necessarily furnish the audience with all the information – look at the recent furore over the photograph of Aylan Kurdi. In terms of history it’s often quite hard to fully detail situations, although with fiction – well – everyone knows the difficulty of making the book into a film, because everyone’s imagination is different. A significant difficulty with journalistic photography is how far it’s acceptable to stage a photograph, and one quickly enters a Schroedinger-esque situation.  Writing, however, is in itself fallible as it is written from memory – Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time Of Gifts is wonderfully detailed for something written after the event. However, in terms of journalism, the World Wide Web and internet have changed it forever and completely – now one can experience real-life reportage instantly from the scene without it really affecting anyone involved at all.

INTERVIEWER

In much of your writing, there is the strong pervading sense of the ‘tragi-comic’ in your collection. So many of Shakespeare’s tragedies could easily become comedies and vice-versa. Your work captures the delicate balance between the two. Yet how do we tread this fine-line between tragedy and comedy?

DODSON

As a student, and as an idiot, I did the very minimum work required at university, at the very last minute, because – well – I’m an idiot. One day before a piece of work was due, I was in the library, searching frantically for a book to plagiarise, and on finding it flipped to the pages needed and read it as I hurried between the shelves, returning to my desk. At the end of the shelves was a portable step, over which I tripped and flew – absolutely flew – out from between the shelves, sailing past two very pretty (Of course they were very bloody pretty) girls. Seeing me explode out of nowhere, at a height of about three feet, and crashing head-first into a crumpled heap at the foot of a desk, one girl gasped in horror and concern, while the other instinctively pointed and laughed.

How should we tread the line? Honestly; as those two girls did.

INTERVIEWER

Looking around at current trends in photography, what are your thoughts and feelings on the industry? And how would you advise aspiring photographers to break out onto the ‘scene’?

DODSON

The great thing about technology now is that it has made everyone a photographer. The problem with technology now is that it has made everyone a photographer. As Bailey expressed his hatred of digital for bringing everyone to the same level, so that level becomes ever more refined. Digital still has a long way to go to match actual film, and because of the physical discourse, filmic photography is becoming increasingly exclusive. Journalistic photography is now pretty well entirely open to the public, and increasingly reliant on celebrity culture.

In terms of digital trends, I notice that currently over-sharpening images is currently en vogue, while thankfully the awful profligacy of HDR seems to have bitten the dust, along with the adoration for the tilt-shift filter in Photoshop.  The problem and the blessing of digital is that it is so very easy now to dramatically alter a shot that it’s difficult to know when to stop, and also judge what a photograph now actually is.

If you want to get into photography you need to do a lot, a lot. The difference between a photographer and someone with a camera is the amount they shoot – if you take the shot a hundred times from a hundred different angles, to try and make sure that the right one’s in there, then you’re on the right road. Digital photography makes this all a lot easier.

If people start asking you to take photographs for them, then start asking them for money. You don’t ask a plumber to come ‘round and fix your boiler on the proviso that you’ll tell your mates about how great he is – don’t let them tell you such. And if anyone comments that that photo you took is really good, and remarks that you must have a really good camera, then legally speaking – legally speaking you can kill these people.

'Mirror'. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

‘Mirror’. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

INTERVIEWER

How about when it comes to writing? Are there any emerging trends you’re particularly interested in?

DODSON

The great thing about technology now is that it has made everyone a writer. The problem with technology now is that it has made everyone a writer.  The internet has enabled anyone with an opinion to express it and potentially be listened to – even the Katie Hopkins puppet commands a sizable audience on Twitter, and makes a sizable income for whomever the operator is. I’m quite interested in the effects that texting, Twitter and the rise of emojis have had on communication, and the fluidity of language – the concept of replacing words with numbers is as fascinating as it is irritating, and the idea of expressing sarcasm pictorially is just downright weird.

INTERVIEWER

How is the digital age impacting the writing and photography industries?

DODSON

Democratisation – there is a huge amount of noise now, the channels feeding on them are increasingly specialist, and the content increasingly diluted. The difference between professional and amateur is becoming very blurred. If you can pay your bills by doing what you do, you’re a professional. If you can’t, you’re not. The digital age thrives on vanity and narcissism, and our self-expression has been sold to us as the most important part of our id, by cynically manipulating our ego. The visceral pornography of instant gratification is encompassing in modern society now.

INTERVIEWER

When you write, what do you think is most important to keep in mind when compiling your initial drafts?

DODSON

‘Write in haste, edit at leisure.’ Michael Stipe of American rock band REM talked of ‘Vomit songs’ – where the whole lot would just come out in one hit. While successfully doing so would be incredible, it’s worth assuming that you won’t, and getting everything down as it comes – it’s awful having that excellent idea just before you go to sleep, and waking up remembering that you had to remember something. I heard that Stephen King has notebooks all over his house, which he harvests on a regular basis (This may be complete bollocks, but on a personal level I have practiced doing so ever since having read of it). Then edit, edit, edit. Rewrite and edit. Then wonder if it’s good enough for a first draft, have a huge attack of the nerves, and go back and edit it again. Do you know how long this piece of crap is taking me to write? I’ve been working on it since 1996!

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ or audience in mind when you write?

DODSON

Generally I’m propping up a mantelpiece with a whisky, surrounded by a host of pretty young women all hanging on every word I say. Whether or not I actually am at the time I write is a matter of mere pedantry.

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the writing industry at the moment? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining, in terms of where the industry is headed?

DODSON

I think the democratisation I mentioned earlier is a significant aspect now. As the physical book becomes increasingly a fashion-statement for hipsters, so publishing and distribution is becoming easier and easier, as the internet allows you to write and publish your own work – either by website or on Kindle. I think as the collective attention span shortens, increasingly skilled editing will become prized – Strunk & White notwithstanding.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

DODSON

Creativity is simply creating. It’s not always a good thing – there’s a lot of absolute shite out there, but by the same token there are some wonderful, uncelebrated, absolute diamonds – which so many of us are. Wordsworth said that good poetry is born of strong emotion recalled in a time of tranquillity. My writing is often such; my photography less so – my photography requires a lot more elbow grease – pounding the streets and taking time to take and retake and look at and take. Eventually – hopefully – I will find among what I’ve shot The Shot. Sometimes I won’t, and that’s tough.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

DODSON

If you make money from strangers for writing, you’re a writer.

INTERVIEWER

In an internationalist, interconnected world, ideas and creativity are constantly being flung across community threads, internet chatrooms and forums, and social media sites (among many others). With so many different voices speaking at once, how do you cut through the incessant digital background babble? How do you make your creativity – your voice – stand out and be heard?

DODSON

I’m terribly embarrassed to say that I don’t – I write what I write. That other people like it is nice – that other people have paid me on occasion for it is nice. But it’s what I do because it’s, er – what I do. Aim to have your work speak for itself.

INTERVIEWER

For all writing, the importance of finding the right ‘voice’ is of course crucial. Often, writers’ speak of developing an ‘other’ – who provides that voice when they write. How have you created and refined your voice and tone for your writing – and do you have a separate, ‘other’ persona who helps you write?

DODSON

Much of my writing is at the very least semi- if not entirely autobiographical. I will take artistic license here and there if necessary, but I’m not imaginative enough to come up with actual, real fiction – there’s always some basis of me in it. Even in my appalling and dark stuff – we all have dark thoughts, and that we are unwilling to face them or talk of them interests me – the disconnect between the social requirement for honesty and politeness is wonderfully flawed – as detailed by Swift in Gulliver’s Travels.

'On The Road II'. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

‘On The Road II’. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

DODSON

I’ve just started working as a cameraman for a fledgling production company. It’s in its infancy yet, and the work is an entirely new discipline to that of stills, but the mechanisms and structures are there – hopefully we’ll have a productive year, produce some award-winning stuff, quickly become rich and the most famous outfit in Britain, and Winona Ryder will finally stop playing hard-to-get and start returning my bloody calls.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

DODSON

She shouted at him – he flinched.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

DODSON

You can only break the rules when you know the rules and you’ve followed the rules and you’ve lived the rules, so write, write, write, and edit, edit, edit. Remember that you are a font of absolute crap, but don’t ever forget that you also have such absolutely wonderful beauty.

Alternatively, if in a hurry:

  1. Red wine
  2. Cigarettes
  3. A deep yearning.