How many interviewers have you come across that unashamedly mention the “maturity” of their guest? That “none” may now officially be changed to “one.” Welcome to one of our senior Poetic Bloomers, Vivienne Frances Blake. Viv is one of our most loyal, consistent contributors. We appreciate her work, as well as her frank comments. She is another excellent poet Walt and I first came to know and admire through Robert Lee Brewer’s Poetic Asides site.
MARIE ELENA: Viv, your lifetime has been spent during an era of much change (technology and morals, to name two). Which changes do you feel have been needed and beneficial?
VIV: That’s a hard one. I think a beneficial impact has come from the development of communication technology. My early computing days were one heck of a solitary struggle in the late 80’s, but I’m so glad I persevered. The internet gave me the chance to earn a BA at 72, and blogging has brought an international bunch of ‘virtual’ friends, with more readers each day for my poetry than I could ever have hoped to attract with any publication.
MARIE ELENA: Your cap and gown become you, Viv. Congratulations!
At the other end of the spectrum, what changes have you found to be disturbing or detrimental?
VIV: Morally, it seems to have been more regressive than progressive, with crime and not much punishment being more prevalent than ever. The sexually liberated age led to a huge increase in family break-up (my own included) and the scourge of AIDS. Politically we seem to be going to hell in a bucket, with self-serving and corrupt governments becoming the rule rather than the preserve of historically third world nations. Media shenanigans are also to blame for much evil in the world. And as for war – don’t get me started!
Our forebears preached that debt was bad.
We had to save for all we had.
Now it’s a feature of modern life
For businessman and suburban wife.
Students borrow to stay alive
and so they find they cannot thrive.
But bankers rub their hands in glee
requiring us to pay their fee
They take their bonuses and pay
And live to steal another day
while we poor suckers pay indeed
taxes to subsidize their sinful greed
MARIE ELENA: Good points, Viv. Include my own family in the increase in family break-ups due in large part to the sexually liberated age. I’m so sorry to hear that yours had its casualties as well.
You used to be a physically active young woman. Now that age has crept up a bit, you have taken to crawling out through the internet wires. If the internet did not exist, what do you think you would be doing with your time … both for entertainment, and for furthering your writing?
VIV: I would be doing what I do now: quilting, cooking, enjoying friends and family. Having been bitten by the writing bug, if there were no internet, I would probably write a good deal more – maybe finish turning a novella into a novel and continue with a boys’ adventure story that I started for my grandson, and really should finish, before he grows out of the genre!
MARIE ELENA: So how many of your 70-plus years have you spent writing?
VIV: Funny you should ask that, Marie: not that many, considering my advanced age. When I was very young, my sister and I used to write appalling boarding school stories, from the depths of our ignorance. A little later, there was a joint family effort with Dad to write a Nativity play for school, followed by a stage adaptation of Little Lord Fauntleroy, in which I played the title role.
Of course, there was a lot of oral writing of doggerel batted across the table at Sunday lunch during my childhood. Dad would come out with a scurrilous statement and we’d take it in turns to add a line, usually ending with a limerick or three.
A long ‘dry’ interval then until I found myself working in business-to-business public relations in my forties, and even then, my writing was confined to press releases, case histories, brochures and the like, though I did write a book called “Help Yourself” about support available for small businesses which is way out of date now, though it had wide circulation at the heart of the 1980s recession. I’d forgotten all about it until your question, Marie!
Poetry didn’t come until about 5 years ago, as part of my Open University degree studies, undertaken originally to make my French more correct, and learn more about French culture, history and politics. As soon as I had the French Diploma under my belt, I turned to Creative Writing courses, and bingo! I found my passion.
MARIE ELENA: Your family sounds like great fun, and you all must have the “quick wit” gene.
What advice would you give young writers?
VIV: To read lots, which helps with vocabulary; to keep a notebook and pen beside them at all times; to learn the ins and outs of formal poetry – even if they never write any – for the rhythm and for the discipline of sticking to rules, even if later they are thrown out of the window; to be careful of grammar, spelling and presentation of their work. Here’s a rather sarky advice poem:
To a poet
Never use one word where
three would work much better.
Examples of verbosity,
of words such generosity,
ignoring pure simplicity.
Fill the page, I dare you,
with words and words of wisdom,
beauty, sense, all buried in
a mound of purple phrases.
assuage my curiosity
to see how far you’ll go
in creating a monstrosity.
To express yourself at length,
is that the right of writers?
Or a more sensible one:
Some things it is not:
a divine wind
the great flatulence of God
something from outside us,
a poetic dictator
who forces us to write.
What is it, then?
It’s the thought that comes into your head
in the middle of the night
but is gone by morning;
the ability to see poetry
in mundane events.
It is the spark, the germ of an idea;
the determination to share
your spark, your idea
in a poem for everyone.
MARIE ELENA: You’ve shared such excellent points and poems, Viv. Which poem of yours would you say particularly flaunts your style and passions?
VIV: This week I have been looking through a large pile of my poems, trying to find a cohesive set for a submission of 20 poems for a pamphlet competition. It struck me that there are three main themes to my output: nature, weather and landscape being the largest group; memories; and lastly, political rants, with a thread of humor running through all three categories. If it was hard to choose 20 poems, to select just one for you seemed almost impossible! I decided to give you the first poem of mine to be published – accepted simultaneously by First Edition and also by the e-zine Long Story Short – while I was still studying, smarting a little under the strictures of university tutors.
In Defense of Clichés
A cliché is a wonderful thing,
a means of encapsulating
a truth universally acknowledged.
Or is it?
At the end of the day,
to be perfectly honest,
safe as houses
makes much more sense
than safe as banks.
I hear what you’re saying
but I want to move the goalposts.
When push comes to shove,
the fact of the matter is that
we need to think outside the box.
In terms of ballpark figures,
a hundred and ten percent
of what I say
is pushing the envelope
Literally, in terms of
blue sky thinking,
the cliché is an awesome resource
for adding value.
Let’s face it,
the mind boggles
at the crackpot idea
of doing without.
the comfort blanket
of received phrases.
The long and the short of it is,
we should all sing from the same hymn sheet:
and agree the bottom line:
a cliché is A Good Thing.
And one of my nature poems
Up through a heap of sugared beech leaves,
I poke my nose, whiffle the air.
No. It’s not yet time.
I woke to hungry rumbling
but no scent of mollusc greets me
and I cannot stand the cold.
Back to sleep until Spring.
It’s the end of a perfect dream
of moistened, creeping worms,
and willing females.
I snuffle again and honeyed air
meets my cautious nose.
Hmm. I think, that’s better.
Ah yes, the time has come
to leave my winter bed of fleas,
to feast and make love,
MARIE ELENA: Those poems are great! I particularly like “In Defense of Clichés.”
Please tell me a bit about your career as a BBC production secretary. That sounds fascinating.
VIV: So long ago! Not exactly a career, either, as I was only there for four years, from 17-21. Initially I worked in the West Indian Service, moved to Music Division, where I worked on the linking announcements for concerts, using and updating an extensive reference library. It was all a bit serious after the jollity of my first job, and I soon moved on to work as secretary to the Fashion and Beauty Editor on Woman’s Hour, meeting (albeit in a humble capacity) the great and the good of many different worlds.
But I have done so many different jobs – temping when needed to earn a crust, eventually finding my niche as Press and Public Relations Officer to the largest Chamber of Commerce in the UK. I went freelance for a few years before we upped sticks and went to work in Seychelles for two years. Jock had reached total disillusionment with the British Health Service (he was a dentist) and we needed to fill in time before pensions became due. That was when I found my vocation as a teacher – of business studies to Polytechnic students, and later here in France, of English to Baccalaureate students written off as “nul en anglais.” Every one of my students has since passed.
MARIE ELENA: Such an interesting and eclectic work experience you’ve had! As an aside, I must say that I’m getting a kick out of your presumably British’isms (“earn a crust,” “we upped sticks,” etc.). Fun!
I know you enjoy music: what type of music strikes your fancy?
VIV: Here’s a sample (Fantasie Impromptu http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qa0Z6g1XJkU&feature=player_embedded)
MARIE ELENA: Oh-so-beautiful. I’m glad you shared the link.
Sunday Night at Gran’s
Give us a toon, Winnie, Grandma would say
as we settled down after our tea.
Ripples of liquid poetry flowed
from the fingers of my spinster Aunt,
to enchant us and set the mood.
Give us a song, Joan, she’d say
and the Eriskay Love Lilt would woo us
in silvery soprano notes
from my youngest Aunt
when shivers down spines would seduce us.
Now you, Bob, would elicit
a song far too explicit
for young ears, Gran complained
as French Uncle Bob crooned
Auprès de ma Blonde
il faut bien , il faut bien dormir.
Bob set the tone for Grandpa,
deaf as a post but still game
to warble a rude one
we all knew by heart:
Johnny with his Cam-er-a.
How about Marion? And my Mum
would groan and play with aplomb
and much too fast, her party piece.
Hungarian Rhapsody Number two by Liszt.
Played like that, it was jolly.
Duets would follow from unwilling siblings
Sylvia and Vivienne.
London Pride we could do without squabbling
but my Grandfather’s Clock was a killer.
A veil will be drawn over vile din from fiddle.
Gran would contribute her best to the party -
the beautiful Alice Blue Gown.
Then the signal to wind up—
crashing chords from the piano
as we asked God to Bless This House,
before we all went to bed.
Music – a constant strand of gold throughout my life. – mainly classical, but also with a penchant for jazz and folk; actively playing piano, clarinet and singing until relatively recently, now passively listening. Other instruments have been dabbled in as the opportunity arose. For a brief time I ran a scratch orchestra at home and have been more or less permanently addicted to singing in choirs and amateur operatics.
These hands that once caressed the keys,
creating music with delight,
rippling notes with careless ease
producing airs and harmonies;
unruly, they resist command.
How sad that time deforms my skill,
a victim of grey cells’ slow decay.
The treble slips, the bass is at odds
as wrong notes crash in jarring chords,
unwanted pauses pain the ear.
Where is the music of younger days?
Dumb machines can’t still this need.
Although the music is not dead,
it lives, an i-Pod, in my head.
MARIE ELENA: Such a sad poem, Viv. It just doesn’t seem fair, does it?
You have a few publications under your belt. Are there plans for more? Do you have a writing/submission routine you follow?
Viv: Not really. I don’t submit as much as I used to – as many major competitions as I can afford and to good free ones. As I’ve said, blogging gives me a greater readership than any work I could publish could hope to attract.
I write most of the time, mainly poetry, late at night and early morning being at my most prolific, though I’ve also written a lot at times of crisis.
MARIE ELENA: I’ve seen photos of where you live, and they are absolutely stunning. If you would please provide a few photos and tell me about your home, that would be just wonderful!
VIV: This house – hopefully our last – is pictured at the end of my ‘House That Jock Built’ poem here: http://vivinfrance.wordpress.com/2011/06/26/the-house-that-jock-built/ . We bought the plot for the fabulous view and designed the house ourselves, with a large sunny workroom for me, and a tool-filled workshop for Jock, landing library, guest bedrooms and bathroom upstairs and our suite downstairs. Most of the ground floor is taken up with the living/dining/kitchen space, which works brilliantly, with three lots of patio doors onto an open verandah shielding us from midsummer sun but allowing us to feel part of our lovely rural surroundings and to eat outdoors frequently.
MARIE ELENA: Could it be any more breathtaking?
My skeleton is
bared in purest form,
in slumber for a time through winter’s chill.
Equinoctial gales send my branches wantonly waving,
’til comes the rain, replenishing my strength for summer’s work.
I stir again. My nascent leaves begin to bud and burst out green.
Birds arrive in feathered phalanx. Calm, all is still.
I preen my regal form in fecund glory.
Summer’s heavy cloak bears down on me,
flower pennants brown to seed. My leaves are liquid gold,
now winter nears.
as my robe
frost and snow,
in solitary splendour, I reign.
MARIE ELENA: Rather than my usual sharing of a poem that particularly struck my fancy or that I found particularly memorable, I’d like to share a few excerpts from the War Memoir section of Viv’s blog, “Vivinfrance.” Written for her grandchildren, I cannot encourage her enough to find a publisher of children’s literature, and get these memoirs into the hands of a larger audience. I also encourage you all to visit Viv’s blog to read them in full. I’m hoping this little sampling will whet your appetite. I simply cannot imagine that it wouldn’t.
“I remember the buzzing of bees in the buddleia by the French windows. But no, it’s louder than that. Look up: the sky so far above me contains a whirling swarm of insects, chasing each other, swooping, curling upwards and away only to drop down to resume the senseless circus. I did not know it then, but those loud insects were Spitfires and Heinkels, Hurricanes and Junkers, their young pilots desperately trying to shoot each other out of the sky. It was the summer of 1940 in South-West London.”
“But at night the almost total darkness was broken by the beautiful patterns made by the searchlight beams, so-called because they swung about searching for enemy aircraft during the raids.”
“I learned to read there. I don’t remember any preamble, any ‘a’ for apple, ‘b’ for ball. I have no idea how I did it. It just arrived. It seemed as though one minute I could not read and the next I could read anything.”
“It was then that I lost my father, albeit temporarily. In 1941 he went into the RAF. I cried my eyes out when Mum said ‘He’s not Daddy any more. From now on he is AC2 Showell, 1866919′ – a number that is still engraved on my brain, a brain that can’t even remember its own car registration. A few days after he departed for a place called Castle Donnington I sat down to write him a letter. Barely literate at the time, I printed slowly and laboriously, with a chewed pencil, onto feint-lined paper:
‘DEAR A C 2
WE MISS YOU IT IS RANING THER WAS A RAID LAST NIGHT
I HOPE YOU ARE ALL RITE
WITH LOVE FROM VIVI
I addressed the envelope, with the title and number, and gave it to Mum. How she kept a straight face I’ll never know, but later I heard her roaring with laughter with Gran. My cheeks burned with resentment. How dare they laugh at my letter? I’d done exactly as I’d been told, proud of my ability to write. So that’s another thing I lost: my pride.”
“My father’s father – a mischievous punster, round and wicked (of which more later) used to take pity on us from time to time and send us a chicken for Sunday dinner. The smell coming from the kitchen drew us irresistibly and we’d sit round the table in the brown dining room, salivating until Mum brought in the miracle bird. All would go quiet for a while and then someone would bring out the inevitable ‘just like a rich family in peace-time.’”
MARIE ELENA: Again, Viv, I encourage you to find a publisher. Your experiences are valuable to our children, and your communication style is perfection.
Now, as I end all my interviews: If there was only one thing we could know about you, what would it be?
VIV: I put all of myself into my poetry – and what you see is what you get, often clichéd, frequently rebellious:
The Significance of Meaning
I try to find the meaning of a poem.
They tell me that it’s more than just the words.
I find that nothing’s really as it seems
when clarity of language is divorced
from reality, perverted to create
poetical effect with metaphor,
confusing images, zany punctuation.
Consonance and assonance should work
within a frame of rhythm, rhyme and meter
to weave a magic cloth of sensual beauty,
Who am I to question this tradition?
The meaning, should it be the raison d’être,
the be all and the end all of a poem?
Or is it something I don’t need to know?
What I would like to add is my appreciation for the nurturing and happy environment you and Walt provide for us poets to play in. Poetic Bloomings is the gem of gems in the blogosphere.
MARIE ELENA: Such a kind thing to say! Thank you, Viv, and thank you for gracing our site with your poetic spirit. Walt and I are thankful to count you as a “Bloomer.”