Realtime Notes: All the news from bad to verse

Nick Asbury's poems cover the whole gamut of living through the past four years

Poet Nick Asbury: his poems cover the whole gamut of living through the past four years.

Poet Nick Asbury: his poems cover the whole gamut of living through the past four years.

 

How do you cope with, and de-stress from, the endlessly interesting times we live in? Exercise? Socially distanced sounding off to friends? Self-medication via Netflix box sets? If your response – not unreasonably – is to switch off social media and look elsewhere, you might miss one of the greatest treats coming from the perpetual news cycle of the past few years.

In August 2017, English writer Nick Asbury was sitting alone in a pub (“standard for poets”) and decided to vent his feelings about the news by composing a poem which he posted on Instagram. And he did it again the next day. And the next, for 3½ years, acquiring a cult following in the process, and publishing the poems in four volumes.

Poetry on Instagram – “Instapoetry” – was already a thing, but it tended toward what Asbury, talking to me via Zoom from his home near Macclesfield in Cheshire, calls “a very aphoristic, life-coaching way of writing”. Asbury’s poems – he calls them Realtime Notes – are more singular, tending to be driven by twin energies of comedy and anger. As one very short poem puts it (June 1st, 2020): “Turn on phone. See thing. / Turn off phone. Seething.”

What drove him to keep “standing under the Niagara Falls / trying to catch the news / in the teaspoon of a poem” (July 24th, 2019)? “We were a year post the Brexit vote, nine months into the Trump administration,” he says. “It felt like things were moving very fast, every big news story seemed to be superseded by another one the next day. And I felt this writer’s urge to write something.”

Writing was already Asbury’s job. Born in 1972 and raised in northwest England, he attended a local grammar school and then studied English at Oxford University, before ultimately finding himself a “creative writer for hire”, working on projects from a rebranding of roadside restaurant chain Little Chef (“Like many of my projects, it subsequently went out of business”) to, last year, new retro jackets for John le Carré’s Smiley novels which adapted the stilted ad-speak of the time.

All these projects are playful and witty, but, says Asbury, “really to fulfil your own creative urges, you have to do your own stuff as well”. These included his greatest success before Realtime Notes: the Perpetual Disappointments Diary, which peppers its pages with proverbs that reverse the motivational language of social media and “give it a downbeat twist”. (Example: “When the going gets tough, tough.”)

It’s also a handy source for essential phrases in other languages (“Do you have any very cheap wine?” or “I am locked in the toilet”) and provides space for Ideas You’ll Never Follow Up, Imaginary Enemies and the names and numbers of People Who Never Call. It’s at number 7 in Amazon’s Perpetual Calendars category, which is not too disappointing.

Instapoetry, after all, must be short and clear enough to arrest a thumb idly scrolling a timeline

But the Realtime Notes provided a daily outlet for Asbury’s off-centre creative urges, and one of the most important qualities is their immediacy, not just for the writer – most take no more than 30 minutes to write, often much less – but for the reader. Instapoetry, after all, must be short and clear enough to arrest a thumb idly scrolling a timeline.

What if inspiration doesn’t strike one day? That’s part of the point, says Asbury. “It’s quite liberating knowing that whatever you post, there’s going to be another poem a few hours later. So even if it’s not a particularly successful one, it’s only up there briefly.” That, presumably, is why not all the poems Asbury posted on Instagram are in the books.

The poems cover the whole gamut of living through the past four years. “I wanted to do funny, but I also wanted to do, say, what’s it like to write a poem when you’re bored, or just feeling down or angry. Trying to say to a future reader that, even in the time of Trump and Brexit, there were times when we were just putting the bins out.”

Indeed, some of the most memorable poems combine Asbury’s daily family life with the wider political landscape. The poem for April 25th, 2018 describes finding an old ball at the back of the garden, three years after it had been lost, and ends: “did a pixie find you? / did a mole dig a hole? / was it some intrepid resident? / wait till you hear who’s president.”

Other poems on quiet news days include one for Madonna’s birthday (August 16th, 2018) – “sixty years of madonna / good on ‘er / they should declare / a holiday in her honour / just one day out of life / it would be so nice” – and a regular run of entries marking the deaths of famous people. “Farewell Barbara Bush / a strange life, / being the president’s / mother and wife.” (April 18th, 2018)

Like any long-term creative endeavour, Asbury’s poems have recurring storylines, and indeed villains. Brexit and Trump provided endless opportunities for Asbury to get things off his chest, but being continually inventive on one subject is difficult, and Trump often inspired visual graphic poems: one where Asbury notes the similarity between Trump’s spiky, Sharpie signature and the hectic ups and downs of the price of crude oil (“Trump l’oil”, April 20th, 2020); or one on the day after the US election, showing images of Trump and Biden side by side, with the text below the images reading: “MR VICE / PRESIDENT.” (November 4th, 2020.)

As 2020 sped up, Covid-19 became a mainstay of Asbury’s poems. Much of this was about the inadequacy of the UK government’s response, like health secretary Matt Hancock giving a press conference to explain why the NHS contact tracing app hadn’t been launched as promised: “hapless / hancock / app-less / hancock / witless / windsock / bobbing / ballcock / halfcocked / halfwit / dithering / dipshit / gurning / gobshite / good grief / goodnight” (June 18th, 2020) – “one that came out fast and fully formed”, says Asbury.

I think this is quite a dangerous time to write at speed

But the pandemic also inspired humanity and depth in Asbury’s responses, as when news broke of the death of the doctor in China who had blown the whistle on Covid-19. “So sad / but why so / particularly and peculiarly sad? / maybe because in this story / of someone far from us who fought for us / we glimpse the same thing viruses see: / our common humanity.” (February 7th, 2020)

What I wonder, however, is whether there are subjects in the news he’s been wary of covering, or felt himself inadequate to write about. (We’re speaking on the day after Derek Chauvin was convicted of the murder of George Floyd.) Does he censor himself? “I think this is quite a dangerous time to write at speed,” he says, carefully. “The easiest thing to do is to write the approved opinions and trumpet them as loudly as possible. That’s what will keep you safe and get you retweets.

“But I’ve always wanted to capture something more complex than that. If you’re engaged in writing at all, you need to believe it’s possible to communicate, no matter who you are and what background you’re from. I’m conscious that I’m writing as a straight middle-aged white male, which is kind of a weirdly interesting thing to be these days.

“I had a recurring refrain,” he says, “in some of the post-George Floyd poems that ‘the meeting place between white and black is the grey matter between our ears’ which is kind of a glib idea, but also feels radical to say in a time of identity politics. I generally hold to the idea of common humanity – and politically I think progressive politics works best when we unite around issues of class and income that cut across identity divides.”

The end of the Realtime Notes came suddenly when Asbury realised that “two of the big plot points had reached a kind of resolution. Trump was leaving office and leaving Twitter, the Brexit process had reached a kind of conclusion.” (Hmm, kind of.) “It was a useful exit point.” His final poem, number 2,113, pays tribute – hands the baton? – to another, younger poet, Amanda Gorman, delivering The Hill We Climb at the inauguration of Joe Biden.

But Donald Trump’s shadow still looms over what is perhaps the best expression of the intent of Realtime Notes – of any writing, slow or fast, anywhere – when Asbury ended a poem, one of his many one-sided arguments with the former president, like this (June 4th, 2018):

“And there is literally nothing / you can do to fight us / you think history is written by the victors? / it’s written by the writers.”

Realtime Notes vols. 1-4 can be purchased at asburyandasbury.com/shop

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