Category Archives: Personal

True journey as return

Across the Bay from storied Babylon
Surrounded, but apart from, London’s town
I know before the airplane touches down
It sits unchanged, though I am decades gone.
Oh Highland Avenue, they still parade
Each Independence day, the men in close
Formation mower drill, lest grass that grows
Too high permit that England re-invade.
When I describe it, I say, Sunnydale,
Without the vampires. They’d have long since fled
To Berkeley, where it’s cool to be undead.
(Among the ski-tanned, only geeks are pale.)
So I’ve returned to where I had begun
My grand adventure. 94611.

Originally posted on Making Light.

RBSG: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

After nine and a half years, it’s nearly over. One more week together, and that’s it. It’s an emotional moment.

I remember how it was in the beginning. After a whirlwind courtship (that aptitude test, the first interview, an overnight at the Apex Hotel in the Grassmarket, so little time to get to know one another!) there I was with pen in hand, signing myself into the relationship. I didn’t know how long it would last, but I went into it thinking of permanence.

I, Abi Sutherland, take thee, The Royal Bank of Scotland…

We’ve been through a lot since then. Better and worse, of course, as always in a job. I’ve wept with the stress of it, thrown a phone headset at the wall, but the Bank also allowed me to do things I did not believe I could.

Sickness and health…we’ve done that too. The Bank put up with me through the worst days of undiagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder, but also benefitted from my manic hyper-efficient summertimes. Supported me during maternity leave, yet took my sleepless nights on projects for granted.

And richer or poorer? Well, it is a bank. We’ve had record profits, and I’ve benefitted from profit share, membership in the pension plan, and fairly good salaries. I can’t really complain.

The Bank’s gained a few pounds since we got together – bought NatWest, growing fivefold in one transaction. But it stayed attractive to me. There are benefits to a big partner. Lately, though, the strains have started to show, in ways I won’t discuss here. Still, something in me keeps thinking if I stuck it out things would get better. It’s what I do.

You see, I’m a permie girl. My contractor friends, who sign up for six-month knee-tremblers or year-long commitments, extol the virtues of their brief liaisons. But I like the stability, the deep familiarity, that comes of long association. That’s great, but now comes the cost: breaking up is so much harder to do.

And we’re almost to it now, to the division of property into mine and thine, to taking off the security pass like a ring no longer needed, to saying goodbye to a building that once was a home. We’re starting to be careful around each other, aware that things started now can’t necessarily be finished.

And I look at the meat market, look at putting myself back out there to see if someone else will want me the way the Bank wanted me, and it’s frightening. I primp and poke at my covering letters and wonder if this CV makes me look unattractive.

If Martin and I weren’t moving to the Netherlands, if this partnership were not about to be geographically impossible, would I be able to break it off? And yet, moving aside, I think that now is a good time to make the move. We were getting stale, and I don’t see things changing.

So goodbye, Royal Bank. I will miss you when I leave, and I hope we can still be friends, but it’s time for me to go.

I think I’m going to need some chocolate.

Akron and the Abi Field

When the going gets tough at work (as it is now), I often wonder why I do what I do. This is one of the little stories that remind me why I am a software tester.

Martin works for SkyScanner, a flight pricing site. He was testing out some code one evening, a couple of months ago, and ran into the sort of frozen-brain feeling you get after too long at the keyboard. So he pushed his wheely chair back from his desk, into my line of sight.

“Bun,” he said, “Name me two destinations. Just any cities.”

“Düsseldorf,” I replied, “and Akron, Ohio.”

“Thanks,” he said, and wheeled back to his desk to fiddle with the new test data. taptaptap. “[insert curse word].” taptaptap. “[insert worse curse word].” taptaptap.

I looked up as he rolled back into my line of sight, looking exasperated. “How do you do that?”

Turns out that Akron, Ohio, USA, is served by two airports, Akron and Akron Canton. And some clever soul, somewhere in the ancestry of the data they were working with, had remapped Akron Canton to Guangzhou Province in China. That was giving him some…funny results.

So they had to go clean up their data. And I remembered why I’m a software tester.

5 Little-Known Things About Me

Martin tagged me with this meme, after I took the pictures for his entry. No photos in mine, I’m afraid, but here are five things you probably didn’t know about me.

  1. The bass line
    I have a real affinity for the bass line in music. I love the way a well-written piece will use it to buoy up the melody. I first learned to appreciate it in high school, when I played the bass clarinet (ordinary clarinet didn’t suit my snobbish elitism). Now, although I am technically a soprano, I prefer to sing alto.
  2. Black? Not so much
    Although you can’t tell it by looking at me, black is not actually my favourite colour. I like wearing it, but I prefer looking at shades of green (not too bright) and purple.
  3. Not long all along
    Although I am known for my long hair, I haven’t always worn it this way. When I was 13, I had it cut in a Princess Di style. That lasted less than a year, before I decided I did prefer having it long.
  4. Feats of toughness
    When I was a teenager, I almost never wore shoes in the summer (“summer” being defined as April to October in California). Inevitably, I developed some amazing calluses on my feet. I used to be able to pirouette barefoot on concrete without pain. I gave it up when I moved to Scotland, mostly because we lived in a couple of areas where the dog owners have no manners.
  5. Fabric Fussiness
    I learned to sew when I was 13 or 14, and have been making clothes on and off since then (it’s handy when you don’t match the dominant body shape, or the current taste in styling). This means I’ve handled a lot of different fabrics, and learned a lot about their different properties. Each type of material has its own hand. Over time, I have come to prefer – strongly – the hands of natural fibres such as wool, cotton, linen and silk over synthetic ones. Synthetics have a perceptible greasiness that repels me. I rarely buy anything of artificial fibre now, particularly to wear against my skin.

Dear readers, now it is your turn. Surprise me.

The Monkey Kings

This is a dark one. It came out of a conversation in mid-December, which strayed into a conflation between the three wise monkeys (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil) and the three Wise Men. Everyone else was very lighthearted, but I have never found the monkeys joyous. That kind of denial of the world around them always saddens me.

O Melchior, you brought me gifts of gold
To make a crown that you refuse to see:
You hide your eyes lest kingship make me bold,
Seduce me on the heights, corrupting me.
And Balthasar, who gave me frankincense,
Is deaf to my pronouncements. Are your fears
That I’d usurp my Father so intense
That cowering, you cover up your ears?
My Caspar, bringing myrrh, forsees such loss
And closes fast his mouth, unreconciled
To thoughts of death, the shadow of the cross:
A monstrous gift to bring a newborn child.
Dear kings, this all was planned, and you might trust
I’ll do not what I choose, but what I must.

Technically, I am not very satisfied with this poem. The language is strained – I should have rewritten it a few times before posting it, but I doubt I will ever go back and do so. It’s a rare example of a sonnet where I haven’t used an octave and sestet structure, but rather three balanced quatrains summarised by a couplet. It fits the three-part structures of both of the stories that converge in this sonnet.

In content terms, I found it very easy to map the three kings to the three monkeys. Caspar, in particular, works well as the wise man foreshadowing the death of the infant receiving his gift, struck mute by the horror of what he has to convey. The others hide out of fear, but he does so out of pity. The point of the poem, of course, is that none of them have the full picture, which is deeper and more frightening than they can possibly imagine.

I do think, before I start doing these in my Christmas cards, that I will have to choose more cheery themes.

Bench in the Botanics

Written today, for a picture taken yesterday.


Taken 9 January 2007

Beyond the hut, the gravel path turns right
To meet a branch that leads across the bridge.
And, nestled in its curve, a pleasant sight:
The wooden bench sits sheltered by its ridge.
Like half a hundred others in this place,
The seat’s a gift, and labeled with a name:
Our hostess here, whose memories still grace
This place she loved, and hoped we’d do the same.
Her unobtrusive presence here receives
Me with no ceremony, and we share
The silence as I sit and watch the leaves
Drop in the pond, and brush and braid my hair.
She is a gracious hostess, and her guest
Appreciates her gifts of peace and rest.

The only technical point I would make is that the transition between the octave and the sestet is, in this case, the transition from setting the scene to my entry onto the scene.

O Take Me

Some of my sonnets are not written rationally. It was not an easy autumn.

O take me where the Douglas firs don’t grow
In rows, but as they please. The roads will be
Awash and muddy now, but I’d still go.
As always when I fail, I long to see
The woodsmoke drifting from the chimney pipe
Above the cabin set amongst the trees;
Across the path, a dancing golden stripe
Of lamplight beckoning with warmth and peace.
O take me from this cold, uncompromising place
Built up with stone and weighted down with years.
Perhaps at home I’d rediscover grace
And find the heart to overcome these fears.
I’ve lost the sense of who I want to be.
O take me home, while there is still a me.

Technically, this sonnet uses the transition from octave to sestet to move from the dream, the longed-for forest (and this is a specific forest, with a specific cabin) back to the city where I live. Thus the pessimism – swap the order and make it present first, then dream, and the poem becomes much more imaginative, less dark.

I am a bit bothered by the false rhyme of “trees/peace”, but I’ll live with it.

Emotionally, the content is what it is. I love Edinburgh deeply, but sometimes I do get homesick.

September 11, a sonnet

This was written on Bonfire Night, 2006. I watched the fireworks with the children, then came inside to warm up and read some of the history of Guy Fawkes and his plot.

History can be as comforting as it is unsettling.

In time, September the eleventh night,
The kids will watch the rockets fill the air.
They’ll OOH and AAH in multicoloured light
With bioluminescents in their hair.
Our tragedies will be reduced to rhyme:
Some half-remembered, mistranslated song
And jumping dance, its meaning lost to time,
Details missing, names and places wrong.
Though self-renewing terror haunts our lives,
Our children, staring upward at the sky,
Remind us that their innocence survives
While we, and they, and generations die.
Resist with decency when terror stalks
It’s stronger than Bin Laden, Marx or Fawkes.

In technical terms, this is an okay sonnet. There is very little “turn” in this one, between the octave and the sestet. The only real transition is from the scene at the start to the message in the conclusion. The couplet does sum things up nicely. But the language is never clever, or particularly powerful.

In terms of content, this is a sonnet I believe in very deeply indeed. I think we exist in a historical context, and that it is important for us to remember that in the choices we make. I think (looking backward) civilisation has faced worse challenges than we face now, and (looking forward) that we owe it to the future not to overreact, or sell out our principles.

Sonnets – Why and How (Long Post)

As noted previously, I have been writing rather a lot of sonnets lately. I can name 27 that I’ve written since I started in October, though if I shake my archives out I may find another one or two lurking.

Why did you start? Why are you doing this?

On September 25, 2006, science fiction and fantasy author John “Mike” Ford was found dead in his house. Although I didn’t know him personally, he was a frequent commenter on a website that I read. He was particularly prone to extemporaneous sonnets, a trait which amused and amazed us all.

I used to write sonnets, years ago, but I stopped sometime after university. I certainly wasn’t of a calibre to match John Ford’s work. But when he died, I realised that I would like to become good at them, and that the only way to do so was to start writing them.

I look at it this way: one day, the inspiration and motivation to write the perfect sonnet may strike. But if I haven’t the skills and experience, the thing won’t get written.

So now I write sonnets. Since they’re for practice, I write them on whatever topics come to mind. I’ve even written one on my organisation’s new system for the recording of project risks. I’ve been described as an “occasional” poet, in the sense that I write for a given occasion rather than writing in the abstract. I often think of my occasional sonnets as “speed sonnets”, because, since I’m writing them for discussions that move on while I compose, I have to write fast. My record is 13 minutes, but most of mine take over half an hour.

I am doing some non-occasional work, however. I’m sending three narrative sonnets off to a science fiction magazine to see if they’re saleable. Each of them is essentially a 14-line short story, and took some 3 or 4 hours to work through.

So what, in your terms, is a sonnet?

Definitions of the sonnet vary more than I originally thought. For me, a sonnet has fourteen lines, divided into an eight-line octave and a six-line sestet. The octave, made up of two quatrains, tends to pose a problem or set up a situation, which the sestet then resolves. The sestet generally uses the first four lines to walk thorough the resolution, followed by a two-line couplet that sums the entire situation up.

(The problem/solution or situation/twist division between the octave and the sestet is not something I follow all the time. But it’s a useful way to structure the poem.)

I use very traditional rhyming patterns, either:

ababcdcd efefgg, or
abbacddc effegg

I know sonnetrists who use efgefg for their sestets, but I do enjoy finishing a sonnet off in a couplet, so I don’t tend to.

My favourite sonnet is by Shakespeare, but it’s not one of his stand-alone verses. It’s actually embedded in Romeo and Juliet – the couple’s first words to one another. It ends with a kiss.

[R]If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
[J]Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
[R]Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
[J]Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
[R]O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
[J]Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
[R]Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.

How hard is the rhyming?

Not as difficult as one would think. The important thing is not to sound surprised when you find yourself at the end of the second line in a rhymed pair, suddenly reaching for some bizarre word to match your sounds up. (This can be funny, used correctly, but after a while it just sounds amateurish). This means planning ahead, and having some idea of the areas you’re going to cover. It also means having some alternative phrasings up your sleeve, if you simply can’t wind up at the right sound at the right time.

The important thing is that it has to sound natural. The writer must be the master of the language. A reader that senses that the language is pushing the writer around, dictating the content of the poem will lose trust in the narrative voice.

I’m averse to false rhymes and near rhymes, but I do cheat a bit on accents. There are words that rhyme neatly in one of my dialects, or in extreme cases, my idiolect, and I’ll happily pair them up. Like the following sonnet, which manages to rhyme “on” and “shone” (I sometimes pronounce it to rhyme with “Shawn”).

The day the Scotland processor came on,
The land itself was darkened from the drain
Till, windmills spinning, taking up the strain,
The nation-chip began. Control lights shone.
The code we’d woven deep into the land
The bits and bytes in heather, pine and stone,
In cities, towns and crofts, then spread, unknown,
Delivering the Web into our hand.
At Mercat Cross they read the proclamation:
We hold the world. It’s time to take control.
We argued then, for Scotland isn’t whole.
Whit? Rule the world? We cannae run the nation!
The wisest knew the row would never halt,
And sitting back, enjoyed their single malt.

(Context note: this came out of a conversation about how Scotland could take over the world, combined with my memory of a line from a James Crawford poem about Scotland as a “boundless chip of a nation”. I’m rather fond of it, though it’s one of the ones where I used feminine endings – see below – on the ninth and twelfth lines.)

What about meter?

I write almost exclusively in iambic pentameter (the link is a very good article, but if you want to skip it, just remember that an iamb goes daDUM and that pentameter means you use five of them in a line). I’m very fussy about this. I’ll occasionally use a “feminine” ending, with an additional unstressed syllable at the end of a line, but only in rhymed pairs.

Most good sonnet writers are less timid about varying their meter, cheerfully swapping spondees trochees (DAdum) for iambs and using unmatched feminine endings. But, just as I used to train with a men’s shot put to make it easier when I competed with the lighter women’s one, I’m taking a strict approach to meter just now. The meter is the engine that moves a sonnet; its pace walks the reader through the meaning. Too loose an approach to meter leaves the reader stumbling, rushing here and lost there.

A few small rules, while talking meter:

  • Iambic pentameter is really just a habit of thought, and of speech. Once you get the “ear” for it, you can write it with surprisingly little effort.
  • When we all wrote sonnets in high school, my best friend pointed out that you can’t start a line with a gerund (“building”), because they’re pretty much all spondees trochees. This was a great rule of thumb, but it falls down with two-syllable verbs (“constructing”).
  • You can use a dactyl (DAdumdum) by sticking an unstressed syllable after it; most dactylic words have a secondary stress on the final syllable. You cannot use a double dactyl in strict iambic pentameter, as I found out when trying to get “paleontologist” into one poem. It just sounds wrong.
  • Try saying your lines aloud, without tapping out the meter. You’d be amazed where the natural stresses fall in groups of one syllable words, and at how bad a poem that tries to ignore that can sound.

The thing about meter is that it matters to spoken language as well. We have words that differ only in their stresses, which can really make a sonnet work – but only if the reader trusts the meter. This one, about paid shills on blogs, uses that in the last line, drawing a distinction between “conTENT” (happy) and “CONtent” (what’s inside).

Oh, what a tangled Internet they weave
Who want to pay for shills to viral-post.
Thus do they practice, seeking to decieve,
Dilution of the thing they value most.
I mean our trust, because if this thing spreads
We’ll read with extra care — and question more —
Their zombie-filled and advert-bloated threads
Until we learn which posters to ignore.
Whoever dreamt this folly clearly knows
The cost of every word, the worth of none.
They pay a listed price for posting prose,
But not for verse, and no one’s paid to pun.
I challenge you: illumine what we see.
Be not content to simply content be.

Speaking of content…

Content in verse is a lot like content in prose. Sometimes I have something to say, and sometimes I just want to burble. I’ve done both in fourteen line stretches, and I don’t know which I enjoy more. I’ve rewritten prose comments on threads to turn them into sonnets, I’ve written over the top laudatory verse, I’ve written cautionary poetry about war and drawn analogies between September 11 and Guy Fawkes. I’ll post more of them over the next few days, if anyone is interested (or, frankly, even if they’re not).

What content I have, I tend to organise before I start writing. I don’t so much outline my sonnets as budget them, deciding I’ll spend a line on this bit and two on that. I may not stick to the budget, but it keeps me moving through the things I want to say.

The thing with content is this: I am never certain that I have anything, in the abstract, worth proclaiming to the world. This is why I like to write to suit the occasion, in a context that I don’t frame. Even so, I am increasingly conscious that my words have more weight because of the rhyme and meter. I try not to think about that too much.

And what is left to work on?

Apart, of course, from mastering all of the above, there are a number of areas I’d like to improve.

First off, there’s a lot more in the sound of language than simple rhyme. I tend to be slightly dead to the ways that I can use the sounds of words to set the tone of a line, or of the poem as a whole.

I am also conscious of the number of sonnet traditions I haven’t touched on – Spenserian, Oneidin, etc, etc. I need a wider grounding in them so that I can consciously reference different antecedents.

I enjoy referencing other forms of verse in my sonnets – I’ve echoed (and rewritten) both Eliot and Frost in sonnets, but there are some skills in that that I should like to master. Rewrites that change the rhyme structure, I find, sound wrong, while those that merely muck with the meter still work. There’s more subtlety in there.

Speaking of subtlety, I find that there’s a hierarchy within the stresses in connected English prose – not all stressed syllables are created equal. I’d like to work with that consciously, sometime, maybe by creating a pattern in the secondary stresses.

I have some funky structural ideas I want to play with, such as a linked sonnet, where the sestet of the first sonnet is most of the octave of a second, which then has its own sestet, etc. I think that would be fun. I’d also love to do a backward sonnet, preferably about time travel.

So, to sum up?

I’m enjoying writing these things, but for goodness’ sake, don’t take them too seriously. I am but an apprentice.

Ironic perihelion

Since, I live in the Northern Hemisphere,
The planet, in its orbit round the sun
Is at ironic perihelion:
I have no comfort, though the sun is near.
Instead, half-starved for any natural light,
I take what refuge in the sunlit days
I can, before the angled and anemic rays
Are smothered by another heavy night.
Rejoice! Rejoice! The turning of the year
That heralds a return to warmth and cheer –
And most of all, the light – the day is here!.
Rejoice, they say, for better times are near!
I know the light will come, and do me good.
But I’m too tired to care. I wish I could.

Originally posted on Making Light.