Ashley Lister

Betty & I

We went to one of those swingers’ parties,
Me and my blow-up doll: Betty.
She wanted to add a new kink to our lives.
I just went there to get sweaty.

Our relationship was at a low point.
And it had been that way for a bit.
But I still tried to treat her with flowers or clothes.
Or a bicycle puncture repair kit.

Yet for months my Betty had been silent.
And our love life had skidded off track.
I didn’t know if Betty had stopped loving me.
Or was just missing the string from her back.

I pumped her up full before leaving.
She looked as good as it claimed on her box.
I adorned her in lingerie, perfumes and makeup.
And then I put on some clean socks.

We looked perfectly suited together
We each were the cream of the crop
But that didn’t stop people from laughing
As we waited beside the bus stop.

I should really have waited to inflate her
Onlookers can say horrid stuff
But we were both going off to a sex party
And I didn’t want to arrive out of puff.

So we stood and endured the torment:
“You sicko!”  “You effing buffoon!”
“You pervert!”  You wanker!  You dirty old git!”
“Don’t you know she’s a bloody balloon?”

When the bus came I grinned at the driver.
But I could tell that he wanted to tease.
I held up my hand, gave him the right change,
And said, “Two, to the sex party, please.”
Which was how we ended up at the party
And Betty seemed glad we were there
She looked radiant in her new lingerie
And her hundred percent nylon hair.

When the hostess sidled between us
She caught Betty’s leg with her fag.
And, although she said sorry profusely,
My Betty soon started to sag.

The air hissed from her like flatulence
And may I just say at this juncture
It’s hard to deny that you’ve farted
And explain that your date’s got a puncture.

I called for some help but got laughter
Everyone thought I was having a jape
As I stood holding up my poor Betty
And screaming for some sticky tape.

Looking back on that time is a milestone
As the air gushed from Betty’s right knee.
But it did bring a new and clean meaning
To the phrase: she went down on me.

I took hold of her leg with my fingers
Around the burn hole I gave her a pinch
And while it stopped air from escaping
She still lacked the right pounds per square inch.

Deflated, we both left the party
And I vowed I would never return
We expected a night of fresh frolics and fun
But all Betty got was a burn.

Betty and I have now parted
And my love life has hit a new low
But I won’t try those personal ads or blind dates
What do you think me?  An effing weirdo?

**********

My name is Ashley Lister.  I’ve written a handful of pseudonymously published erotic fiction titles (well, two dozen novels, but who’s counting?).  I’ve written several short stories and a couple of non-fiction titles exploring the UK’s alternative sex culture.  Currently I teach modules on fiction writing and poetry writing at degree level.  And I’m the author the poem “Betty & I.”

On the surface “Betty & I” can be read as a whimsical exercise in the absurd.  A lonely man takes his blow-up doll to a swingers’ party.  It’s a silly idea.  But the poem also explores loneliness, as well as the inscrutable societal rules that reinforce loneliness with particular regards to maintaining and enjoying sexual relationships.

The unnamed narrator begins the poem in a parody of a conventional relationship, where he is involved with a blow-up doll.  The blow-up doll is an icon of female sexual oppression.  The blow-up doll represents the apex of misogyny: it’s a three-dimensional image of crude feminine sexuality, commodifiable as a mass-produced tool for male mass-consumption; comprising of an ostensibly attractive surface with nothing substantial – literally nothing but air – beneath that surface.

But the focus of the poem lies with the lonely and dysfunctional, unnamed narrator.  We understand he’s lonely because he’s presented to us in a relationship with a blow-up doll.  In the real world that would be called ‘not having a relationship.’  We understand he’s dysfunctional because his relationship with this inanimate object is proving unsatisfactory and it is suggested they are struggling to stay together.  As a solution to this dilemma of loneliness and dysfunctionality, the narrator elects to explore alternative-sexual culture.

I write erotic fiction to explore these taboos, and to pursue the prospect of sexual variety and experimentation within fictional relationships.  I research and write sexual non-fiction to discover and share the experiences of others who have tried to expand their boundaries and their knowledge and experience of sex.

We live in a world where sex remains a taboo subject.  Admittedly, the taboo against sex and the discussion of sex is not as strong now as it was during the Victorian era.  But it’s still true to say that, for the majority of us, our knowledge of sex comes from our own limited experiences.

Sex, like poetry and fiction, is a solipsistic practice: it’s something that we all experience on our own.  It’s true a reader can share a book with the person they love.  A couple can read the words to each other or sit down together and listen at a poetry reading or to an audio book.  But, ultimately, we all experience poetry and fiction on our own.   In the same fashion, we all experience our responses to sex on our own.  And the worry as to whether or not our responses are the correct ones is what invariably reinforces each individual’s loneliness.

The concept behind “Betty & I” is that the reader can laugh at the absurdity of the narrator’s situation as he attempts to forge a comparatively conventional solution to a mystifying and seemingly irresoluble relationship problem.  The reality is that the reader can empathise with the narrator’s plight because, to some extent, we’re all struggling to find a conventional solution to our own mystifying and seemingly irresoluble problems.

Ashley Lister is a UK author of fiction and non-fiction.  When he’s not writing he’s either teaching Creative Writing or working on performance poetry.

27 Responses to “Ashley Lister”

  1. The mindset that “Betty & I” explores, a lonely person projecting upon an object to attempt to find companionship “outside” themselves, is a fascinating subject and I enjoyed the way you layered it with humor and the symbolism of a blowup doll.

    The poem says many things that aren’t directly said, which invites the reader to explore their own perceptions on the topic. In a sense, a form of projection.

    And this, indeed, is a key step in working toward demystifying our perceptions.

    Stripping them down, as it were.

    Thank you for joining in!

    • Ashley Lister Says:

      Hi Craig,

      I enjoyed writing Betty & I. One of the things I liked when I viewed the finished product was the fact that, even though the focus of the narrative is supposed to be about Betty, the narrator’s predicament seems to take centre stage.

      Our perceptions of ‘normality’ and a ‘regular relationship’ are artifical constructs, but this doesn’t stop the moral majority from acting as though there are rules written in stone somewhere. It would be helpful if there was more information out there demystifying the arbitrariness of these constructions.

      Best,

      Ashley

  2. Oh, Ashley, this was splendid, simply splendid!

    Maybe it’s because I seem to be seeing the world through a lens these days, because I’ve been studying films – but your “Betty and I” reminds me of a film I saw awhile ago called, Lars and the Real Girl. Film watchers rarely ever get a detailed descriptionn of the thought process behind the work though, so your eloquent description is quite a treat.

    I do feel the vulnerability of the piece: the sadness, the lonliness, and the desperate attempt to fit in. Suffice to say, I do think there’s a piece of your character in each of us. I can relate to trying to fit into a world that seems so square with all its well-defined edges, but not ever being able to adequately fit in, because try as a I might, I never quite fill in the sides.

    Thank you for contributing and giving us a little piece of you and ourselves. :-)

    • Ashley Lister Says:

      Neve,

      I’ve only managed to perform this piece once for a substantial audience. It’s written in the popular style of local northern performance poetry and its construction was heavily influenced by several successful narrative humourists.

      Loneliness is a crushing condition made worse by the fact that society tells us all we’re supposed to be in relationships, and those relationships are supposed to be of a specific type.

      I’m now going to try and find a copy of Lars and the Real Girl.

      Best,

      Ashley

  3. This was delightful on many levels. First – poetry! How very wonderful! (Wondering if I could have permission to read this in an erotic open mike poetry night this coming week???)

    What I especially liked was the juxtaposition of poignancy and humor – not easy to accomplish. “I didn’t know if Betty had stopped loving me. / Or was just missing the string from her back.” And this line – “But it did bring a new and clean meaning / To the phrase: she went down on me.” – was absolutely to die for!

    In the poem, sympathy for the narrator is created in a gentle way, which can cause the reader to examine their own reactions. If I where on that bus, how would I react? In the past? Now? In the future? Can one’s perceptions and beliefs change over time? How does that happen?

    The other night, my husband and I were having a discussion about “Real Dolls” – he had seen something on TV about them while on a business trip. He said he was blown away (ha!) by it, never having heard of them before. (He did say “you probably know all about them” – and I did say I’d known about them for years). We had a fairly interesting conversation about the mindset of someone who would opt for something like that (assuming one could afford the price tag) – and while personally feeling a very strong ICK (that intrigues me as a writer) – I did not find myself thinking that these folks are “just sickos” – so, it was a very interesting mental exercise.

    I’ve not seen that movie, Neve, but I do think I might check it out – I would imagine it’s on DVD by now.

    Anyhow – thank you Ashley for this wonderful contribution to F-Stop!

    • Ashley Lister Says:

      Erobintica,

      First: if you want to read this to an audience, please go ahead. I’d appreciate it if you could send me an email to let me know how it’s received.

      Second: Real Dolls! I remember watching a documentary about them also. The sad thing about such documentaries is that the programme makers try to sensationalise the product/situation at the expense of the truth. Consequently they end up filiming the whacky types who don’t mind people seeing them have a tea-party for their six plastic friends and an unsuspecting new internet girlfriend.

      Best wishes,

      Ashley

  4. Ashley,
    I hope you know I’ve now referred to you as, Sir Ashley Lister. :-)

    Yes, mainstream humanity is rarely happy unless the populace is involved in a significant relationship, even if the significance of that relationship isn’t healthy. I think some of the lonliest times I’ve experienced personally was when I was in a so-called “significant relationship” that just wasn’t working – that defines the lonlinest of lonely for me.

    Is is crazy for me to point out that we all come into this world alone and guess what…? None of us get out of here alive and that is a path we walk alone. Nuff said, I suppose on the subject.

    Oh, yes, for anyone that’s interested, do try and find a copy of Lars and Real Girl. It was directed quite well.

    Cheers, to you Sir Ashley!

  5. Hey Ashley,

    “Betty & I” is so perfectly Ashley, sparkling with humor and wit, yet touching on something deeper and true below the surface, just like your many, many (don’t be so modest) short stories and novels. Combining humor and sex in a thought-provoking way is indeed a very courageous act in our sex-phobic society. I will confess I let the laughter prevail over the loneliness (“Deflated, we both left the party” lol), and it’s certainly ironic that the blow-up-doll-loving narrator also judges others for their sexual “perversions.”

    The blow up doll is indeed a creepy symbol of female “perfection” in a misogynistic society. Taken one technological step further, she becomes a Stepford Wife (speaking of films, the original is such a time piece and so slow-moving, yet definitely worth a nostalgic re-viewing; I didn’t see the remake). Yet you could say men are pressured to become success objects as well and the narrator of “Betty & I” is also dealing with his failure to amass all the trappings of a successful male. Most of us lose in the traditional patriarchy, don’t we?

    Oh, I was wondering how your audience responded to the poem at your public reading? Ever think of doing a podcast?

    • Ashley Lister Says:

      Donna,

      The remake of Stepford Wives is vastly inferior to the original (which is in turn a poor transcript of Ira Levin’s original story). However, the remake does include one brilliant original line where one of the manufacturers of the Wives explains that he used to work for AOL.

      Nicole Kidman turns to him and says, ‘Is that why the women here are so slow?’

      I’ve been thinking of podcasting my poetry, but never managed to find the time, motivation and microphone all at the same time. However, the poetry group I work with are hoping to start recording our output soon so, hopefully, I might be able to advance things on that score.

      Best,

      Ashley

  6. Bravo, Ashley! A piece like this is the best of both worlds: engaging, witty entertainment coupled with serious-minded, thought-provoking analysis. Not only am I in awe of your ability to *do* both so well (as seen here and everywhere else I’ve encountered you), but I also really admire the healthy sense of respect you obviously have for both the frivolous and profound side of things–even of the same thing–and how sincerely and masterfully you do justice to both.

    • Ashley Lister Says:

      Jeremy,

      I’m glad the poem entertained. One of the reasons I enjoy reading your work (look out for my review of RMSO on ERWA this month now that it’s available through Kindle) is because I really appreciate authors who can use humour effectively.

      Best,

      Ashley

  7. I think it has all been said. Wonderful, witty, poignant, the situational pathos, even disturbing, most of all, thought provoking.

    Speaking of northern performance poetry, I suppose you’re too young ; ) to have been to The Aldeburgh Festival this year where we heard John Hegley and Kate Fox. It is a dynamic form and your poem is an outstanding example. I, most unfortunately have to simply imagine, because one of the very few disadvantages to living in beautiful rural Tuscany, is no broadband…

    Well done, a pleasure.

    • Ashley Lister Says:

      Isabel,

      Thank you. And I’m delighted to hear that there are some drawbacks to living in beautiful, rural Tuscany. I can now assuage my jealous by thinking, ‘Well, she doesn’t have broadand!’

      John Hegley and Kate Fox sounds like a dream team of poets. If they had Roger McGough as well I think I would sell organs to get myself there.

      Best,

      Ashley

      • I can now assuage my jealous by thinking, ‘Well, she doesn’t have broadand!’

        And you would be right to do so. There’s a lot I miss out on. This is a spectacularly beautiful place and I love it, it inspires a lot of poetry, but in the words a couple of my other favorite early performance poets,
        I talk to the trees

        I’ve always suggested that we need to organize a writer’s retreat here, right Donna and Craig? Donna might not even mind if it included some poetry writing ; ) .

        ciao

  8. Very clever, very funny. I don’t think I’ve ever seen “flatulence” in a poem before, lol.
    And then even more clever after the end of the poem, to confound us! Good stuff, Ashley.

    Tim Minchin on the same subject:

    • Ashley Lister Says:

      Janine,

      I adore Tim Minchin – and I think this is one of my favourite of his songs.

      It’s maddening that he’s got such phenomenal stage presence, such a clever ability to play the piano, and a genius for witty lyrics all in one package. As you may have guessed, I’m a huge fan.

      And I think flatulence should be included in more poems. If Carol Ann Duffy can write poems about David Beckham’s poorly ankle, I’m sure she can start writing more scatological verse to please those of who don’t follow football.

      Best,

      Ashley

  9. Wah?!! I just copied in the URL and it embedded itself. Eek! scary internet!

  10. I so enjoyed reading the insightful nuance of this post, Ashley, as well as the entertainment of “Betty & I.” :)

    It’s funny, I was just pondering yesterday or so how the feeling that one is not understood seems to me one of the strongest forms of loneliness. To be here, and to perhaps be even in someone else’s (or many others’) physical presence, and to feel you are not understood, not really known—is there a greater feeling of loneliness? And it seems to me an odd, profound, disorienting feeling in that if in other(s)’ physical presence, we still feel that way, where may we seek connection?

    Such has struck me at least (though I don’t know that I articulated it very well). When I read this,

    “In the same fashion, we all experience our responses to sex on our own. And the worry as to whether or not our responses are the correct ones is what invariably reinforces each individual’s loneliness”

    it reminded me of that musing. Beautiful lines.

    I appreciate also your commentary, both overt and implicit, on society’s perceived constructs and their frequent arbitrary nature. The understanding of this on a general level seems deeply significant to me.

    And lastly (but not leastly), the skill to juxtapose humor and serious insight strikes me as brilliant. It is in fact one of the things that has struck me as brilliant before about your work. :) Not to entirely plagiarize Jeremy, but I found his comment pretty much an exquisite articulation of my perception on the subject that I had not managed to articulate nearly so well. (Thanks Jeremy!)

    Thank you, Ashley, for sharing what you do. And thank you for this offering here on F-Stop!

    • Ashley Lister Says:

      Emerald,

      Thank you. Loneliness in all its forms is a debilitating condition. The idea of people not understanding an individual is, as you say, one of the condition’s most pernicious forms.

      I recently studied language acquisition in children and the case studies on ferral children – those children isolated from communities and brought up without language – are heartbreaking. And that’s just one aspect of communication that can lead to the individual not being understood. On the more prosaic level of talking the same language but just not geting the pragmatic meaning across, it’s equally devastating.

      Which is why I try and work with humour when I can. Most people will argue that something is either funny or not but, when it works: it can be a leveller of barriers to understanding and a key factor in increasing successful communications.

      Best,

      Ashley

  11. Isabel said:

    I’ve always suggested that we need to organize a writer’s retreat here, right Donna and Craig? Donna might not even mind if it included some poetry writing ; ) .

    Right Isabel!

    I’m ready and raring to do my part and give you a break from all that tree-talking. I have my quill packed and ready…

  12. Isabel,

    Well, if I’m allowed to try for humorous rhyming verse like Ashley’s poem here, I might consider a little poetry retreat in the Tuscan hills! A fantasy vacation indeed!

    Emerald your point about the loneliness of not being understood, oh, my, I really understand that. (It also ties into Neve’s mention of feeling lonelier when coupled up with the wrong person than being on your own). I think one of the many strengths of our writer’s community is that we have found people who understand the parts of us many others do not. If that makes sense.

    Wow, Ashley, what a wonderful discussion your poem has sparked!

  13. Ashley Lister Says:

    Donna,

    It’s been a wonderful experience visiting here. Between writing erotica and performing whimsical poems it’s rare that I get a chance to talk seriously about creative writing.

    Thank you all here at F-Stop for making me feel so welcome and I look forward to returning regularly in the future to see what else is being discussed.

    Best wishes,

    Ashley

    PS – Please put me on the mailing list when Isabel opens the writers’ retreat.

  14. Oh Ashley! I love “Betty & I”! The overlap of the humor masking the pathos is perfection! And the last judgemental line is pure screwball. Thanks so much for posting this here. And this insight is absolutely exposing:
    “But, ultimately, we all experience poetry and fiction on our own. In the same fashion, we all experience our responses to sex on our own. And the worry as to whether or not our responses are the correct ones is what invariably reinforces each individual’s loneliness.”

    That is so articulate and insightful and sad and enlightening all at once.

  15. Ashley Lister Says:

    Susan,

    Thank you. I haven’t come across the word ‘screwball’ in ages. I think I might have to include that in the next poem.

    Best,

    Ashley

  16. Well, I laughed out loud at the cleverness of the poem, and then felt a little chastened on reading your explanation of it. Very nice work, and important subject matter. Loneliness is indeed a naked issue.

  17. Ashley Lister Says:

    Jo,

    I’m pleased the poem made you laugh out loud. That’s why it was written. And I love the idea of loneliness being ‘a naked issue.’ If I wrote serious poetry I think I’d be stealing that concept.

    Ashley

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