SUBMISSIONS WELCOME FOR
‘NOTES FROM THE WATCH’
THE BOOK OF GODLESS VERSE began with the need to witness the messiness of every day life, the stuff that we’re supposed to ignore or keep quiet about. For this call out on the shortest night of the year I want to plunge straight into the dark to hear your night thoughts; to capture them like the BFG catches dreams and share them here on The Book of Godless Verse blog so that we don’t feel alone in the dark.
We work in the dark – we do what we can, we give what we have.
– Henry James
You can scroll to the end for Guidelines or pause here and take a meander through my obsession with dark time thoughts for inspiration.
I’m fascinated by our relationship with the dark, that half-waking state and the thoughts that seem to visit us there rather than come from within us. So let’s take a running jump at what the dark means for humans. Long before electric light; a public police force; the distraction of screens the night was a truly scary place where real and imagined bandits hunted for your body and soul.
We did not need to artificially scare ourselves. The terrors were real.
We can deduce from biblical references that for the Greeks, Jews and Romans the night was divided into military Watches instead of hours. Sentinels were posted at the beginning, middle and morning Watches to guard against the threats the darkness brought. So began the Watches of the night.
This practice was mirrored by the early Christian Church Hours of the day for prayer. It became the practice of primitive Christians to hold the Nocturns, an all-night watch service.
Although fully lapsed I’m still seduced by the language of the Hours – Watch, Nocturns, Night Office, Vigil. Taken out of their context these words shine a tender light on those half-sleeping half-waking hours.
Watch is rooted in Old English, wacian, ‘remain awake’. For me this suggests the ceiling-staring wakefulness that brings the strange illogic of night thoughts.
Nocturn is Old French, meaning ‘of the night’ and there are those things which are only of the night, aren’t there? As a teenager I became nocturnal walking home at day break, dewed with dancing and sex.
Vigil is from Old French vigille, ‘wakefulness’ but it’s deeper Proto-Indo-European root weǵ- means ‘to be strong.’ Night is a time for garnering strength, both physical and mental. The word vigil always makes me think of the strong women from my home town. When my father was growing up in the 1930’s it was the women who launched the Lifeboat, they would wade waist deep into the thrashing water carrying the fully crewed boat. Then they would ‘wait vigil’ for the return. They had to be ready to treat those who survived but also to prepare the bodies of those who did not.
The Night Office makes me think about work done at night. I worked in a night club on Reception in my early twenties. It was a run down shack in a ruined seaside town.
My job wasn’t just to take the money: it was to assess the state of the clientele, to work out how likely they were to vomit, pass out or fight.
I kept antibacterial wipes under the counter because of the amount of times I was handed money that was bloody. At the end of my shift, bang on 2.00am after I’d cashed up the DJ would play The Jean Genie and I’d leap from my booth to the dance floor and shake out the liquored come-ons and fag-slurred threats with Bowie. It was a topsy-turvy, high-low time.
Night Office also makes me think about the work the mind does to fix itself. That’s one of the things the night is for: ‘sleeping on it.’ But sleep is not a simple or passive act because there are dreams. Shakespeare got this. Chaucer got this. Pretty much every writer, singer, painter gets it and the hell with it, let’s mention Carl Jung, King of Dreams. But weirdly when I was wrangling with what kind of writer I wanted to be, I read a lot of rubbish advice about not using dreams in story. Thankfully a whole heap of brilliant writers didn’t get this advice or just ignored it, otherwise we wouldn’t have du Maurier’s Rebecca or Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess.
The Book of the Duchess is a dream poem and begins with one of the most compassionate and accurate descriptions of anxiety and depression I’ve ever read.
Default of sleep, and heaviness
Have killed my spirit’s liveliness’
The dreamer has a problem but never reveals what the issue is that keeps him awake. He tries to read a book to fall asleep. The heroine of the book prays to Juno for a dream vision to alleviate her grief and the dreamer falls asleep with the book in his hands. Who hasn’t? Whilst asleep he meets a dream guide in the form of a small, friendly dog, who leads him into the forest to a dark Prince who has lost his wife. The Prince is overcome with grief but the naïve dreamer doesn’t understand. He gently probes the Prince with tender questions about his first love and convinces him and us that life is worth living. The dreamer awakens refreshed and with his sorrow lifted and eager to write up his dream.
This is dreamwork at its best, where we awake not only rested but transformed.
And isn’t that how story works too? So I welcomed the dreaming and the Watch hours into my work. This resulted in the first performance poem I wrote for The Book of Godless Verse: Breaking up with Jesus. This piece was commissioned by BBC Radio 3’s The Verb as part of the Verb New Voice programme. Like Chaucer’s dreamer, my poem concerns a woman who can’t sleep in the early hours of the morning. In the dark her mind turns to those messy small moments of living that break you, that somehow leave you less and more than you were before. You can listen to my night thoughts here recorded for Radio 3’s Free Thinking Festival.
One final thought about the Watch Hours from the brilliant historian Roger Ekirch. Did you know that there is strong evidence to show that humans used to get two sleeps a night rather than the recommended eight hour block. In his stunning book ‘At Day’s Close’, Ekirch of Virginia Tech reveals a wealth of historical evidence that humans used to sleep in two phases: segmented sleep. He references diaries, court records, medical books and literature, from Homer’s Odyssey to an anthropological account of modern tribes in Nigeria.
It’s fascinating that we used to practise bi-phasic sleep. That we would wake in the middle of the night to pray, mediate, make love and of course read. These were the only hours we owned and weren’t for work or duty.
I hope you found this diversion inspiring and I look forward to hearing your night thoughts.
500 words prose / poetry / prose poem or less on the theme of:
NOTES FROM THE WATCH
Times New Roman 12 pt.
Submission period opens 21st June (Midsummer) and closes 31st July 2018.
Selected entries will be shared on The Book of Godless Verse Blog.
Only one piece per submission.
Simultaneous submissions are accepted but please notify me if you need to withdraw in good time.
No racism, sexism, homophobia or religious hatred.
You will be notified if your entry is accepted as soon as possible.
Individual feedback will not be possible.
Copyright remains with you, the author.
Please email your submission to
as a word document .doc / .docx attachment
Include BOOK OF GODLESS VERSE in subject heading.
Include your name, email, links to your sites and a short 50 word bio in your word document.
I’m afraid I cannot pay for submissions only provide a platform to share work.
I look forward to reading your night thoughts.