Writing transhistorical spoken word: Run Softly

I only just made the deadline for the Totally Thames open call. I was in the middle of studying for final year exams (April), and all of my creative brain cells were hibernating during the revision-winter. I think this is why the idea I came up with is actually quite academic. I was revising the entire span of English literature, from Old English poetry (500ish – 1066ish), all the way through up to works written only last year. I was even writing a transhistorical study for my queer theory module. Thus Run Softly was born: a series of poems tracking the history of literature, all about London’s infamous river.

Run Softly promo picture by Isha Shah

I chose the title because “Run Softly, sweet Thames, ‘til I end my song” is T.S. Eliot quoting Edmund Spenser, which suits the intertextual vibe… Ok fine; it’s because it was the only quote I knew about the Thames. Then the choice to perform the pieces promenade down Southbank was partly because I thought it would be cool, partly because it suits the whole “journey down history” thing, and mostly because it was the only way I could do the performance without having to pay someone a lot of money.

Once my exams were over, the writing process began. The first thing I did was come up with a story line, as I didn’t want it to be a hodgepodge collection of poems. Using my knowledge and/or revision notes, I thought about each major literary period or author, plus the historical progression of London, and mapped the experiences and perceptions people had at each time. At this stage, it had very little to do with the Thames.

First basic story line of Run Softly

To focus in, I searched for literature about the Thames. I already had some that I had suggested in my open call submission – Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Eliot – but I needed a lot more, and definitely more diverse voices. Mostly, I tried to think about works that were set in London, and then used the magic of Google Books to find specific mentions of the Thames. Side note: It was through this that I realised Ben Jonson would actually be the better choice for the Renaissance, as his plays are firmly and specifically set in London. In the end, my homage to Shakespeare was a sonnet, inspired by his unique use of the Volta and Petrarchan convention.

I have only made it a little easy, and modern for the times, sir, that’s all. As for the Hellespont, I imagine our Thames here; and then Leander I make a dyer’s son about Puddle-wharf; and Hero a wench o’ the bankside.

- Littlewit, Bartholomew Fair, Ben Jonson.

I found some of the literature through googling ‘literature about the Thames’, though it took a while to find anything other than Eliot. Others were found by chance, for example when I went to a seminar at my university which featured Miranda Kaufmann talking about her book ‘Black Tudors: The Untold Story’. This inspired my imagined experience of Dederi Jaquoah, Prince of the River Cestos, visiting the Thames, all based on the facts that Kaufmann presents in her book.

Finally, Peter Ackroyd’s Sacred River proved invaluable, as he had an entire transhistorical (Renaissance to modernism) chapter on literature about the Thames. Mostly, the pieces that he discussed were boring and uninspiring topographies – if you’re having trouble sleeping, try John Leland’s ‘Cygnea Cantio’ – but his overview of the attitudes in each period was crucial for me adopting the right mindset as I wrote each piece.

So the research was complete, and I’d gathered all the quotes. Some were for core inspiration and quoted in the zine, while others were references for attitude and/or style.

I started by reading the source material again to get a feel for its style. This was particularly important for Dickens; my natural prose would not have sounded anything like old Charlie. It became a surprisingly fun game of balancing imitation and innovation – telling my own story whilst keeping myself in a box of verbose language and accurate details.

The source literature also dictated the specific forms. I knew that Old English has rules of alliteration, but I had to carefully observe the elegies to see what they alliterated and why, from a creative perspective instead of an academic one. The Renaissance, too, dictated form, and I analysed how rhythms and rhymes were being used. All sounds rather like an English exam, doesn’t it? It was quite a learning curve to take those skills from my degree, and use it as a funnel for my own writing.

As I came to write each piece, I had to decide on the content. Perhaps surprisingly, this was the hardest stage. The question I had to ask myself each time was: what did I want to say, through all the filters of another period’s perspective? I never tried to pretend the pieces were written at the author’s time; I aimed to make each one timeless, straddling then and now, so that when read in isolation, you get the impression of history and the imminence of present day.

Chaucer was a prime example of this. I based my piece on his General Prologue from the Canterbury Tales, due to his brief mention of an inn at Southwark that was near the river, but my inspiration for all of the people I describe came from an afternoon sitting on Southbank, watching all the passers by, and playing a game of “guess the profession”.

The socialite ignores and passes by The merchant artist bidding all to buy. The strolling lawyer in a sharp blue suit Fails to notice that man, almost mute…

The most interesting piece to write was ‘These Swimming Pool Streets’, which I based on the similarly named queer novel by Alan Hollinghurst, and Toby Campion’s queer, Thames-inspired poetry. I’d read Hollinghurst’s entire novel, but I was completely stuck for ideas. It had presented a world – aristocratic gay men in the 80s – which I didn’t feel remotely comfortable writing in. I had nothing to say. Then I reread Campion’s work, which I hadn’t originally intended as a core inspiration. Suddenly, his imagery sent my mind spinning off thinking about melting, and the meeting point of heat, liquid, solid, steam. The poetry began to flow, drawing on the stories of homophobia and transphobia in Hollinghurst and Campion’s works, and my own memories of hot, liquid-infused gay bars. The lines between their stories and my experiences melted and oozed, so that it was the best piece in the entire work, and hit my heart hard every night I performed it.

After all of this imitation and inspiration, it finally came to writing my own poem about the Thames, which I didn’t perform but is in the zine. I had gone through every literary style and morphed my mind into the many perspectives of history; what on earth would my personal style be? And what, at the core of it all, did I really want to say? I got very stuck. The clock was ticking on the time left in my London flat, and consequently the time left to be ~inspired~ by London.

Then one night I came out of a poetry reading at the Southbank centre. I was moving out the following week, so I took the opportunity to go look at the river whilst I still could. As I stared at it, there was both too much and too little to say, all of its history contending with the singular observation: “god its dirty”.

As I stared down at the foreshore, a bottle washed onto the stones. It felt like a gift. Before I knew it, I was writing down everything I observed about the river, and how people around me were treating it aka ignoring it. I wrote some rough notes on my phone, took a video to jog my memory, and then over the next few days I slotted all the snapshots into a poem.

It is no wonder that my personal reaction to the river was difficult to pin down; the Thames is plethorous. It represents work, trade, death, entertainment, pollution, nature, something to be ignored, something at the heart of the city, an asset, an inconvenience, etc etc.

Over the course of writing Run Softly, I discovered that how people have interpreted the Thames is an insight into the fundamentals of their psyche, shaped by the views and situation of their time. For Geoffrey Chaucer, it was a focal point for civilisation and the growing population of London. For Ben Jonson and Edmund Spenser, it was a record of history, a gateway to the classics. For Charles Dickens, it was dirty work and death. For T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, it was a monument to tradition, a memory of (Romantic) nature, whilst simultaneously a figurehead for the city’s increasing trade and globalisation. For contemporary writers, it is an equaliser of the rich and poor, immigrants and natives, a representation of the city’s vibrant diversity.

For me, I’ll remember the river as a monument to the first major foray into my artistic career; how I left behind the clear, green-weeded stream of my home village, to find the vast, dangerous, exciting, roaming power of the Thames.

The penultimate piece in Run Softly: entirely my own original work

Run Softly was performed on Southbank 12th - 15th September. The zine was available to buy until the 30th September, and contained 3 pieces that were not performed.

More information here.