Thursday, August 29, 2019

Short Stories

I had a bit of a flurry of getting short stories published a few years ago, but nothing in the last year or so. Strangely the last story I had published was picked up for Best British Short Stories 2018. I think I've lost the thread of who is publishing what, but doing a bit of writer's admin, I've found I've got about half a dozen completed ones that are on the publishable (i.e. short) side. A couple of these I've sent out to competitions but they're not really competition stories, as they're all a little downbeat, introspective and philosophical. I seem to have a few unnamed protagonists, in faceless towns, and perhaps that's too colourless for some.

Going back a bit, my short story writing has never fitted into a particular theme or groove or even single voice.

There are some commonalities. I write a lot of two-handers, where two characters (usually, but not always, two male characters) are interacting with each other in different or unusual ways. I'm interested in the way that men interact: as something more than acquaintance, but not quite friends. One of those male traits that seems to be undervalued is how often we rub along together, finding some commonality - drink, football, or simply the group - where personality wise there wouldn't be much in common; or even a certain symbiotic relationship. I realise this isn't exactly a radical theme, how many stories are about the master and the pupil for instance? but its interesting that I draw back to it. In a reversal (or confirmation) of Alison Bechdal's Bechdal test (two women in a scene talking about something other than a man), its rare that two men in my stories would talk about a woman. In "The Good Citizen" which was published in VLAK magazine, two Asian men become wary friends, as they live in the same rooming house. The one is trying to keep his head down, the other is becoming entepreneurial, the misunderstanding is the tragedy at the heart of the story. In "Life Grabs" (from Best British Short Stories), the two men have only a business relationship - the man whose son went missing, and the man in the computer shop who helps him piece together what happened. These easy/uneasy friendships are at the heart of how many interact, its transactional as much as anything. When I meet an old friend we talk about old friends we have lost touch with; its not that we were ever really close, but we want to pretend that the transactional friendship meant more than it did.

Another theme of my stories has been the hidden, or mysterious - something on the edge of believability. Sometimes it has a Borgesian text (as in The Four Hills of Manchester, which also acts as the title of a book extracted from in the story), other times its the location (as in Last Testament of a Lighthouse Keeper, where the protagonist is on an island, alone, his past a mystery.) In The Cat (from Unthology 4) its left open whether the cat of the title is real or a metaphor. Perhaps its both. Occasionally its been deliberately fantastical, Aliens landing in Ashton IKEA in The IKEA in Ahston Can Be Seen From Space, or a drone that is personified in Dear Papa.

Longer stories have used real events or have a parallel with what's going on in the world. Finding a way into writing about contemporary politics I've often approached things from a different angel  - here it is the structure of the story that helps. I've often talked about stories having a slow reveal, where the truth about the story has been there from the start but its approached sideways.

But more recent stories have been more introverted I think: the character is often alone, and the thing that is happening to them they are unaware of. They are less plot, more philosophical. I think perhaps I need to improve their saleability by developing the plot a bit more. Part of the problem is how Manchester has changed - it used to be a city I could easily write about, but increasingly I find it hard to describe - there's nothing memorable about its sleek glass towers, its chain bars and restaurants.

So here I am, writing about writing, rather than writing... procrastination of the highest order!

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Art Thoughts

I've been thinking of doing more visual art for a while, and finally having a space of my own where I can set up a "studio" has led me to do it. Not being an "artist" I wondered why I was wanting to do this as well as my writing and music. Here are a few thoughts.

I am not an artist.

Or rather I haven’t the skill of an artist, even if I have the sensibility.

My other art forms – poetry, fiction, music – are informed by a very visual sense, conceptually, and in execution.

What I can do is create stuff, using whichever tools are to hand.

Collage is my perfect medium. Collage is part of my artistic practice going back thirty years.
I like the physicality of the collage.

Juxtaposition gives meaning.

Art is not just about a literal meaning, but a non-literal one.

As Frank O’Hara writes in “Why I am not a Painter”, his artist friend includes a sardine in the picture because “it needed something.”

Abstract art has value.

Abstract art comes from something that is not abstract at all – a concrete need and desire.

Rendition or representation is in itself a questionable task

In the age of mechanical reproduction there is value in the non-repeatable, the random chance. In the age of digital reproduction the physical object has its own meaning and value. 

Constraints are good.

Constraints enable you to make decisions confined within certain parameters.

You have to start somewhere.

I’m interested in the fragile; and I’m interested in the reproduction

Is the art the original, or the print?

There can different levels – so that an original work can be photographed, can be amended on the computer, can be placed somewhere, and can then be a new original work.

I’m interested in the sculptural, the space, the room.

We live inside boxes. Rooms, houses, cars, offices. That seems significant. 

The modern world is cramped.

Pictures speak easier than words and with more clarity.

I don’t know if I want to represent a thing, or the thing to be simply the starting point because “it needed something.”

It feels good to be released from the need for a narrative; or am I just attempting to apply a narrative to another artform? 

Scissors and glue takes us back to childhood; never a bad place to go for revitalising our wonder at the world.

Art is recycling. 

I'm some way off having something that I can explain in "art speak", that is a good thing. 

Maybe I can exhibit this some time; who knows?

Learning new things by doing feels good. 

I think I am working towards something, but maybe that's less important than the single steps on the way. 

Creative people need to be creative - and sometimes that means changing what you do. 

"Only ever doing what's expected of you is a tragedy." (This is the title of my next music project.)

Friday, July 05, 2019

Bells for Peace

When John Lennon first met Yoko Ono she was already an established artist. In fact, he was at her show. not her at his, and he asked to participate in a work of art that offered the opportunity to hammer a nail in. Ono's art has always been participatory but has also been very aware of its value. 

What was wonderful about "Bells for Peace" at Cathedral Gardens in Manchester last night was that after at least 30 years of being a fan, I was able to participate in one of Yoko's works. Whereas artists like Tunick and Deller can seem to use people as material, Ono, one of the original Fluxus associates, has work that can only exist when we participate - we are the art - and so it was last night, as we responded to her instructions, simple do-able actions that are familiar to any readers of her book "Grapefruit", but made real because there are 4000 of us. The "bells" are a McGuffin in some sense, a way that we can physically understand the instrutions to believe in love and peace.

It was a wonderful occasion. Given that the last MIF ended with the cynicism of Phil Collin's terrible "Ceremony", this was wonderful palliative - an art of giving - of belonging. We rang our bells in catherdral gardens and for a brief point in time, the 50 years of calling for peace, that is central not just to Yoko's art, but to the vision we have of her and John Lennon, was palpable. Even the call to speak to a cloud - in a Manchester sky where a single grey alabaster dominated - didn't dampen the mood but instead made us laugh in a communion. 

Saturday, June 22, 2019

...but I've written it.

How much is there left in the tank? I wonder about this. Writing is so much more than just putting words on the page, but about the harnessing of some cosmic energy, that is both within you and outside of you. If the drive to write was always there, then what if then it stops? I think I will always be creative, its innate within me, but writing...what is it exactly? Its not a job....its a strange vocation. Like Greene's Whiskey Priest what if the only thing left is to continue writing, but not believing it anymore than he did? I suspect that's why it's one of Greene's most resonant works. In a world where you've been conditioned for a certain faith, or belief, to be told that is no longer acceptable. It may wither, but can it truly die? The withering is enough, I think.

I seem to be finding less time to do this faithless task of writing, and with less certainty about why to do it. There's always been too sides, the private side of writing, a pleasure, a prayer, but the public side, an act of worship, a getting the work out there. On which side of these am I on? There's half a dozen unfinished - or is that "hardly started" - stories on my laptop, the incomplete novel I keep promising to return to, to put it out of its misery if nothing else, poems in notebooks that whenever I try and pull together seem to have no coherence other than that they were written by me, at some point. Life gets in the way, eats up time. I sometimes think writing does require some kind of state "in extremis" (as an old poem of mine was titled), something to fight against. Watching Russel T. Davis's "Years and Years" this last few weeks, it feels like television as novel, with a heft that only the longer work can have. Certainly we are in novelisable times, and Manchester, where it, and I are set, is a cinematic backdrop. We are also a city of literature, yet one that has yet to find its great city work. The contenders are all peripheral I would say: A Clockwork Orange is not set here, but feels Mancunian in its Ultraviolence. It's always timely, that novel of the psychopathic free will, in an age of Trump, Putin, and now, it seems Johnson. A Taste of Honey comes close, but its a play of course, and stubbornly in the sister city of Shelagh Delaney's Salford. I'd put a marker down for This Nation's Saving Grace, Unknown Pleasures or The Smiths, musical markers of the city. And yes, there are the older novels, the Gaskell novels, or working class fare like Love on the Dole. So there's still something to be written, I think, of Manchester, about Manchester, and I used to think I would write it, but I'm not sure now if anyone wants to hear it or read it. We live in optimistic times when it comes to culture, there's too much nihilism in public life for there to be room for it in art it seems. Even "Years and Years" which has the world going to hell in a handcart, is written optimistically, life, family, rebirth.

So at the moment the particular challenge I have is that everything I sit down to write, I think, wait a minute, I've already written it. There's twenty five years of this stuff on laptops and hard drives, quite enough for one man, one writer, one life I'd have thought. I don't necessarily think I can do it better than I have done already, and that's clearly not been good enough one way or another. Magazine editors and people running literary nights get younger, are overrun with enthusiasm and optimism, even as they struggle with the hand of being young in 2019 - but at least they are young. There's not much of a model for the writer who hasn't defined themselves fully after a quarter of a century.

Perhaps writing this is an attempt to kick me from out of the slumber. I've plenty to "do" - even literary wise, given some of the projects I've become involved in, and I know I crave, as ever, the requirement to be creative - maybe its back to the music, which similarly sits in a state of disarray, a dozen unfinished songs from "the next album." It's not writers block I think so much as taking pause, and asking what next.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Fancy a literary swim?

This weekend, if you fancy a literary swim the place to be is Victoria Baths, the restored community venue just behind the universities and hospitals. A great venue to host, and a great venue to explore.

This Saturday sees a range of workshops during the day, and then on the evening a specially commissioned reading of 6 new stories by some of our finest writers - that's from 7, with a bar open from 6. You'll need a ticket for particular events to attend. Then on Sunday more workshops and an indy book fair, so more of a drop in day, where I'll be selling copies of the Some Roast Poet magazine and hopefully a cassette (!) of my live poetry.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Forensic Records Society by Magnus Mills

The banal doesn't sit well with fiction. The novel insists, too often, on action of one kind or another. It is left to theatre - "Waiting for Godot" perhaps - or comedy, "Viz" or "Early Doors", to find an artistic mode for the passing of the days. Occasionally attempts like Sylvia Smith's "Misadventures" have not been well received. Yet banality is one of the tropes - perhaps the main trope - at the heart of Magnus Mills' is fiction. Perhaps its because most of his characters are workers of one sort or another that this is the case, although in his latest, "The Forensic Records Society", the whole people who actually work are George and Alice, the licensee and barmaid of the pub where the majority of the (in)action takes place.

Two record collecting nerds would sit round each other's house, listening in turn to three records of the other's choice, an unspoken set of rules meaning that their comments on each were of the minimum. They were beyond taste, seeing that as merely opinion; yet tacitly they shared certain values. I'm reminded of when I was a teenager and three of us would come back from Birmingham laden with records and the rule was that we had to listen to the other's purchases, however much we hated them.

James, the leader of the pair, has a plan, that he suggests to the narrator, as his willing foil, that they should start a Forensic Records Society at their nearby pub on a Monday night. They do so, and gradually, draw in other blokes (always blokes), to their Monday ritual. Like early Christians or prototype Marxists, their club develops rules, and is both rigorous in the applying of them, and solemn in the seriousness of their purpose. Time passes in a vacuum, regardless of how many records they play it is always a surprise when last orders is called.

On ejecting one person from the club for arriving too late they find that he has set up a rival - a "confessional" records club, on the next night. Infiltrating this night they find it is very different. That people confess their feelings brought on by a particular record, and pay £5 for the privilege; it is attended by a mixed crowd, women included, and the leader becomes a bit of an icon.  It's like Simon Bates' "Our Tune" mixed with "The Matrix."

In the mean time, the pettiness of James' rules causes disquiet amongst the members, even as they turn up to listen to classic 7" singles. The song titles are planted throughout the book without explanation, so we too can almost become members of the club. There's a debate going on about the "perfect" song - not because of artistic merit but because it lasts for exactly three minutes, the "three minute pop song" being more a thing of legend than reality. This is the kind of thing that gets the men who attend this club excited.

Our narrator, common to many of Mill's characters, is unworldy whilst having a highly developed sense of his own perceptions. He slowly comes to realise that James is seeing Alice, the barmaid, who nonetheless remains incredibly frosty with himself. She has, it turns out, been singer on a very rare demo single, and the plot of the novel - if there is one - swings around this being heard. Alice, in her turn, has strong views on the narrator, describing him as someone who  doesn't like music.

The humour in "The Forensic Records Society" is in how Mills, as ever, works wonders on a tiny, restricted canvas, and draws out of it all its comic possibilities. The uncertain time keeping of the meetings is part of it. In Magnus Mills' world even physics can bend to the comic possibilities of the narrative.

Things come to a head of sorts, when a 3rd rival organisation, playing records that are more "meaningful", comes into existence. There's quite a few nice digs at the world of the record collector in this narcissism of small differences, from those who fetishise the object, to those who want the innocence of the classic jukebox 45. Amongst the many records listed, there are rap and ska and indie and classic rock and soul, but not much room for ABBA or house music or anything too modern. Even an avid record collector such as myself only recognised about two/thirds of the titles.

Its a short novel, but more packed than the above description can give a sense of, since in talking about the banal and the unimportant, there's clearly bigger things going on here. One reviewer calls it Animal Farm "with much better songs", but I always think Mills is less interested in metaphor, than in the small systems that exist within our everyday mundane society, such as the rules of the forensic records society, or the maintenance of headway that bus drivers pursue in a previous of his books. This fondness for an enclosed, regulated society, and what happens when the rules are broken or not fit for purpose is a way of exploring how men (and it is always men, the "love interest" like Alice, is hardly there at all) negotiate the world. That the world is not quite the one we perceive, is part of their charm.

This latest novel seems the closest in many ways to his debut "Restraint of Beasts", and like that its ending is uncertain, and ambiguous. The return to an every day setting after some of the more fantastical or out of time settings of recent novels is a welcome return to his home turf. It's one of his best.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Art Currents

At the start of March I was in Oxford for the first time, ostensibly to see the Jeff Koons show at the Ashmolean, though that was really just my excuse to go down, as I was off work for a week, and needed a trip away. I have always liked Koons, as more than any other contemporary artist he seemed to embody the times in which he creates. Sure, he's a late pop-artist but what he always brought to the table, as good artists do I think, is an unabashed sense of the work itself. Post-modern times require post-modern artists and Koons came at it without shame. His best work, some of which is shown here, really does stand the test of time. His balloon rabbit, made from stainless steel, is an iconic image - I used it as a cassette cover as far back as 1994 - but in the presence of it, you realise how good it really is, unphotographable in a sense, or rather, its reflective surface will reflect back the photographer, so its impossible to get a "clean" picture of it; also, being a 3 dimensional object, its appearance on postcards and the like reduces it to something less than it is, a flat Warhol surface, rather than the Oldenberg readymade that it is more akin to. Similarly, his floating basketballs are things of delicate wonder. You can see where Hirst got his ideas from maybe, though here we get the title "One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank" rather than "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living." Koons doesn't like the word kitsch to describe his work, as that's an arbitration on taste, and in many ways, his work has always been about stripping back the pretension of art to being - like Warhol's soapboxes and soup tins - something that you can imagine anywhere.

The exhibition at the Ashmolean has this first room of Koons classics, which are great to see, but do somewhat diminish what is there besides. The centrepiece of the second room is "Balloon Venus" which sees Koons playing similar games of reappropriation with "antiquities". This dialogue with art is why the show is at the Ashmolean, though oddly, its not really the Ashmolean's art that is being discussed. The superstar artist of course can plonk his franchise anywhere in the world for a few months before moving on. This room of "antiquities" - paintings scribbled on, or large scale recreations of other's works, seems more crass, though they are as bold as what came before. Its clearly monied art that exists because of that money. Its impressive but somewhat lacking in either wonder or humour. I preferred the third room, the Gazing Ball series again finds recreated classical sculptures and the like, but has a blue glazing ball added to each - these, apparently, can be found in the mid-west, as ornaments outside peoples houses, little baubles which you can look in and be reflected back in. They reminded me of the sort of art you see in Dr. Who, in a museum of the future, where Mona Lisa's and David's have been given a SF makeover. Yet, this isn't his purpose - the glazing balls are an American commonplace, which doesn't make them work quite as well in a British context where they just appear exotic.

So it was a small, but interesting show. In the video accompanying it, Koons, looking less like the Anthony Robbins/Jim Carrey of old and a more groomed Nicholas Cage, or perhaps more accurately, a well-heeled business school professor, talks about how having a family changes his views on things. There are no sex games with Cicciolina in this show then. The Guardian review has plenty of pictures, but I agree with the conclusion really, its a show of surface, not much more.

Back in Manchester I managed to get along to Niamos centre, an old ballroom in Hulme which has its own grandeur and is now back in use as a community-run venue. There was a music conference, Unconference, with the band PINS performing alongside others. They have changed lineup since I last saw them, and added more electronica to their garage pop, but it as a fine gig regardless, despite the "suits" in the audience not being as lively as their usual crowds.

I then got over to Bury Art Gallery, where one of my favourite local artists, Sarah Hardacre was exhibiting as part of the "Architecture Now" exhibition. Her prints and collages appear alongside cardboard building designs by Maurice Shapero. I've usually only seen one or two of Sarah's pieces at a time, but its instructive to see a much larger group of them for even if the format is unchanging - seventies porn pictures juxtaposed over urban scenes - what she does with them changes a lot, and seeing a whole group, with some Bury specific ones, made me smile more than the overinflated Koons work did.

Smiling was the order of the day at the third show I've seen recently - with Cherry Tennyson's solo show at Paradise Works. Half of Two Days of Everything brings her work from out of the studio and into the gallery; more readymades, more collages, but here with artefacts rather than paintings. The work feels fully realised, with aspects that are surreal or abstract, but with an impact that seems more subtle than that might apply. These works seem quite architectural in their own way; quite "made".  Its on for the following 2 Saturdays, so well worth a visit if you can find the time.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

This week

Its a busy week coming up with some excellent events on in Manchester.

On Thursday its the new Castlefield Gallery exhibition launch, Ever since CUBE gallery was closed there's been a gap in terms of design-led exhibitions, so its good to see this new show, UnDoing, a collaboration with Manchester School of Architecture. 

Also on Thursday, Brighter Sound have a cross-border collaboration, Both Sides Now, featuring emerging musicians from Liverpool and Helsinki, with mentoring from Manchester's LoneLady. A panel discussion will be followed by a one-off performance of new work. 

Then on Friday I'm looking forward to a talk from Kaye Mitchell, whose new book Avant-garde fiction of the 1960s, coincides with the reissue of Ann Quin's "Berg".  Its £3 to attend and on at the Anthony Burgess Foundation

It's also the launch of the Viva Spanish Film Festival at HOME all evening. 

Then on Saturday, I'm performing poetry at a night of DJs, music and words as a benefit for the male suicide prevention charity C.A.L.M. King Kenton's Greedy Band Selection costs £5 and takes place at Gulliver's on Saturday. Doors from 6pm, it all starts at 6.30pm, and I'll be on around 7.30pn. 

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

All Our Pasts and Futures

When David Bowie came back with his "The Next Day" album it was knowingly an album that mined the various stages of his career. Not because that was all he could do (as the future-gazing "Blackstar" would prove) but because it was some of the things he could do. The cover of that album was a pop art collage recreation of "Heroes", belatedly (since it didn't sell that well), one of his most iconic records.

He is not alone. Zappa's first three albums were cut up collage affairs that mined a multifaceted musical past and pasted them together. In the years to come he would separate out these instincts - so "Hot Rats" was his funky jazz album, "Cruisin' with Ruben and the Jets" his doo wop album etc. There are artists who have a thin seam they mine - maybe Dylan is like this, but he mines it deep. In retrospect the reviled double album "Self Portrait" is the most emblematic of this. Here is Dylan explicitly as magpie. Mark E. Smith was similar: always sounding like the Fall whether he took in garage rock, rockabilly, disco, cheesy '70s pop. British Beat, Krautrock or even Zappa.

I like to think musicians as they get older are able to pull in a wider palette than their forbears. As someone who has only ever used synthesizers in my music I've been always a bit in denial about those forbears - trying (in my own head at least) to emulate non-synth musicians. But I had a bit of a revelation before Christmas when I listened to my albums from '85 onwards in order. I saw that I was working my way through the various archetypes of electronic music - on the way to my own version of this. In 1985 it wasn't very fashionable to sound like early 1970s Tangerine Dream, but that was clearly what I sounded like; but a year later I was stumbling through early electronic new wave like the Normal and Cabaret Voltaire, and onto to electronic pop like Human League, before heading into New Order, house music and maybe rave. Yet my first house track was a few months before I'd heard Jack Your Body, so I went from being an imitator of past styles to being an unconscious designer of future ones.

Listening to my music over the last few years, this mix of the retro and futuristic is something that is at the heart of my musical project. I am past, present and future, but then I always was. Imitators often become the thing they tried to imitate - so Dylan is our examplar of Greenwich folk, or Depeche Mode quickly became the biggest electronic band in the world. I can't pretend any such power for my own music of course, but I think there's a sense that a steady sticking to the same electronica means that its possible to step outside of time somehow and just become part of the historical narrative you were initially imitating.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Resisting Conservative Narratives in Culture

The 1930s have long been on my mind. Weimar art and culture is a vibrant pot that continues to be worth stirring, and its ending as the Nazis came to power, remains the lesser tragedy, given what happened in the war, but nonetheless a tragedy that still resonates. And given that memories fade, or history gets rewritten, art continues to be a rebuke against forgetting.

Listening to Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), and reading about its genesis, its fascinating to consider the piece in its relationship between high and low culture, and between the mainstream and the avant garde. Gay's Beggar's Opera was a popular success, the word "opera" being appropriated for a song cycle that appropriated the best of popular culture of the day. It was clearly something that Brecht and Weill picked up on - and sure enough - from its first performance they had a popular success on their hands, that nonetheless attracted the middle classes to the work, as a "must see."

British and American audiences have mostly come through its songs - "Mack the Knife", the English translation of its most popular song, was one of the most popular standards of the 1950s, widely recorded by a range of popular crooners. By the 1970s Weill/Brecht were well established in the repertoire, and with suitably strong reputations in their respective fields; but its interesting that its been those on the avant garde who have been drawn into interpretations - at least within the pop field, particularly of later work such as "Alabama Song." The drama (and decadance) of 1930s Berlin finds favour with David Bowie, Klaus Nomi, Marc Almond, Ian McCullough and others, whilst being somewhat expunged from the commercial record. It would be a brave and nuanced performer who would bring their work to the X Factor or The Voice.

I've recently been listening a lot to Lotte Lenya, who appears here, and was Weill's partner. Her long career included a role in popular culture as Rosa Klebb in the Bond movie "From Russia With Love", as well as the appearance of one her albums appearing on the cover of Dylan's "Bringing it all back home." For those of us with a prediliction towards the international avant garde, its strange how certain erstwhile popular works ("Mack the Knife" is probably as famous as a song can get),  can retain their cultural currency.

It's no coincidence that both The Beggar's Opera and Die Dreigroschenoper have remained popular works as well as having great success in their day - for I think they have a universality that cleverly taps into various cultural currents. The avant garde, if its anything, is a hybrid, a shaking up of parts: no wonder it is drawn to collage, and that can be re-purposed, think of Burroughs and Gysin's "cut ups" or Kathy Acker's rewriting of classic works. As in literature, so in art, with Hannah Hoch, Andy Warhol, Richard Hamilton and others; and in music with sampling, and unorthodox covers, as well as the cyclical influence that sees Philip Glass reappropriating Bowie and Eno's Heroes and Low to make his most "traditionally" classical pieces.

What I think this shows is that modernity is very rarely derived from nowhere, or without influence, but whether we are talking about high culture or popular culture art forms that are relentlessly squeezed into their prevailing codes are unlikely to extend the form, and eventually become sclerotic and derivative.

Art is a threat because it does not necessarily respond to the prevailing narrative of the times, politically and culturally; and also because, as it is often non-explicit in its politics, it is open to interpretation which the sloganising of the time doesn't allow. In the excellent, though somewhat frightening, TV drama Brexit: the Uncivil War, the successful "leave" campaign is reduced down to the manipulations of backroom psychopaths, manipulating the message through algorithms and simple repetition to the extent that a complex relationship is reduced to a yes, a no, as required by the dumb logic of the plebiscite. In this its clear that art - because it can influence not just the way we think, but how we process complex worlds - becomes even more important if we are to retain a free-thinking capacity. It is no surprise that from the Nazi's crackdown on "degenerate art", to Stalin's policing of its composers, to China's cultural revolution, to the killing fields of Cambodia, to the Lord Chancellor's ban on what could be seen on a British stage, to McCarthyism, and now to the pulling of arts education from schools, the refusal to listen to "experts" across all kinds of fields in Britain and the U.S. today; that culture threatens conservative and repressive narratives in our society by questioning their very validity, and giving us the tools to do so.

A nostalgic art is one that is unchanged and unchanging, so that even fierce iconoclasts of the past become packaged. The sugar coated "Imagine" becomes a regular on Smooth.FM whilst the context behind it, Amsterdam bed-ins, the avant garde albums with Ono, are conveniently ignored; classical music hides behind the tailcoats and opera glasses of upper class entertainment. In The Uncivil War, the actors playing Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, two media-savvy careerists who've been amongst the architects of Brexit, see each other from their private boxes either side of some classical performance. This is where power happens, amongst culture that can no longer shock, or inform. The poetry festival, the blockbuster art show, these are also manifestations of this power, locking people out through their customs or price even as they pretend to an egalitarian. Outside, in a dingy warehouse or pop up space or dive bar, above a pub or in someone's bedsit, is where art is actually happening; if there is a resistance (there is always a resistance) this is where it begins.

And yet, we live in worrying times - and art, like civil protest, is beginning to be repressed as a result. The arrest and imprisonment of civil rights activists against fracking (which was successfully quashed on appeal) had the "couldn't make it up" scenario of happening when a particular judge gave judgement, despite having family connections in the energy industry, and - perhaps a sign of the small pool from which the ruling class comes from - coming from a line of judges which included the overseer of the Pendle witch trials.

More recently, and very shocking, is the arrest and suspended imprisonment sentences of drill musicians for performing their work live is perhaps the most shocking overreach of police and judicial power in the arts that we have seen in over twenty years. Skengdo and AM, names new to me, but big enough in their music community to be playing to large crowds, join a list of artists targeted for their work. It is a dark time.

With Brexit continuing to suck all the air from the room, its easy to forget how little Europe or being part of the European union has been part of our artistic discussions over the years. There's often a parochialism about our island nation that turns inward whenever there appears to be a threat or a difference that we don't understand. Like the cloud that covers the land in Ishiguro's metaphorical novel "The Buried Giant", we prefer the mist of isolation, than to see the ships arriving on the horizon - and that seems to be whether they bring enemies or new goods to trade. We've often, as a nation, punched above our weight creatively, benefiting as often as not, from our isolation, our cold, damp winters, and our English language; but also that's a chimera; many of our most important artists are imports - think Handel, T.S. Eliot, Epstein, even popular favourite Freddy Mercury - or from our polyglot margins, Celts, Scots, Irish, or imports from an English-speaking empire. Our last two Nobel writers - Lessing and Ishiguro - as examples.

This is not necessarily to aim for a political art, but to appreciate how political art can be in and of itself. Brecht clearly recognised the potency of reviving the Beggar's Opera in a different context, and it flew; for a contemporary Britain our narratives need to move past the sentimental. Even the uproar around Danny Boyle's attempts to create a corrective narrative for his Olympics opening ceremony in 2012, now seem partially obscured by what was clearly - in an age of austerity - a festival of bread and circuses. The avant garde - if such exists - and if we are even allowed to use such as French term (for which there is no direct English equivalent) has always been an international exchange of ideas, above and beyond the differences of language and culture; it is resisted by Putin in imprisoning Pussy Riot just as it was in other places and other times. Here and now, we see that government funding for the arts becomes more and more a creature of political whim; May's attempt for a post-Brexit festival of Britain could well fall flat on the impossibility of her uninspiring leadership delivering on any kind of Brexit that doesn't destroy the country. The funding will no doubt stay in place, the chosen artists may well be ones willing to bite the hand that feeds, but as ever, the scale and majesty of officially sanctioned art, can act to nullify even the most experimental of gestures.

At the same time - this weekend in Glasgow to see art - and hearing about a range of D.I.Y. and grassroots events in Manchester, our own resistance is far from subdued. Art on its own as is never enough, as the crowds flocking to Die Dreigschenoper would soon be going about their normal lives, fleeing or dead, or part of the nationalist war machine; its easy to forget (as we stockpile tins and bottled water for a "no deal" Brexit) that we need bread and circuses. Let's be careful who is providing them however, and what are their motives.

Friday, December 21, 2018

More Than Words: Book Design in Contemporary Poetry

Sometimes you only notice things when seeing from a different angle. Having recently moved house, I began unpacking my books, putting all the poetry books in one place for the first time. There are some striking designs in poetry history: the wonderful typographical covers of sixties and seventies Faber Thom Gunns; the stark look of New Directions beat poets; the uniform Stephen Raw covers of my many Carcanet books; the quirky seventies chic of Brian Patten's slim volumes; Penguin's classic Modern Poets series; the Pop Art appropriation of anthologies from Donald Hall and Al Alvarez.

Amidst all of these familiar covers, I began to notice that the most striking volumes were often much more recent ones, from tiny or barely existent presses, from the more interesting of our current crop of poets. The shelves quickly filled with a hotch-potch of different sized books, some reflecting on the work inside - wide pages, square covers chosen to fit in the internal content.

Its always been the way that far more than prose, poetry publishers have had to accomodate different line lengths, and different page designs as a result. The "long line" has challenged the uniform design of many a press. Yet without a broader page size a lot of contemporary poetry falters, feels cramped in a way that its not. Recent examples include "Sea Change" by Jorie Graham and "One Big Self" by C.D. Wright, the latter being testimonies from prisoners, and so having something of the verbatim of prose, those organised as poetry.

The importance of doing justice to the work is not a new thing. Ashbery's long poem "Flowchart" appears in a suitably large format hardback for instance. Even recent anthologies - such as the relaunched Penguin Modern Poets - and small format magazines such as Poetry, have tended to change the "direction" of wider poems, or have fold out pages. 

In the background of all this are the wider changes in the publishing industry, where at the same time as major players reduce their lists of marginal sellers (poetry being one), the slack has been picked up by the ease in which a press can be set up and in a very short time established. Yet its also a sign of how open poets generally have been to producing work in a number of formats and for a number of publishers. 

The pamphlet remains one of the entry-level routes into poetry. Pamphlet series such as the Salt Modern Voices one I was published in, as well as Faber's new poets, have been a good opening gambit for new poets. Yet, more established names have also found the pamphlet works as a perfect model for side projects. Cheap to produce, in limited runs, pamphlets tend to the ephemeral, and as a result we see some of the nicest examples of design - either because they are a one off, part of a generic series, or simply through the accident of materials and publishing method. Minimalism is employed to strong effect on the below examples from Rhys Trimble, Amy De'ath, Matthew Welton and J.T. Welsch - artisan covers offset the poems which are often presented in a very unadorned way, with little design beyond the use of white space. Things of simple beauty. 

But the pamphlet is not just an occasional project, but a simple distribution mechanism, easy for poets to carry around, to sell at gigs, and short and cheap enough to encourage purchase. For just a few pounds you get to sample the poets work. In some ways the American term "chapbook" seems a better one - and some pamphlets are as long as "single collections" would have been thirty or forty years ago. In some cases, and with prolific presses such as Knives, Forks and Spoons, its hard to see where the gap between pamphlet and collection is. KFS have adopted - as did Salt with their Modern Voices, or Faber with its new poets pamphlets - a uniform design. This again cuts down on cost and production time but also creates a signature that is itself visually exciting, and perhaps even collectible.  In the case of If P Then Q (Holly Pester below) the limitations of publishing platform Lulu encourage a more austere and minimalist design which has its own clarity to it. 

For the bigger independent presses such as Bloodaxe and Carcanet their own "uniform" designs have perhaps begun to look a little overly familiar over the years despite their excellence. Stephen Raw's Carcanet covers have themselves been highly influential, and still have gravitas (see the 30th anniversary Ashbery below) but we've seen recent books from the publisher, from James Davies and Matthew Welton with a new aesthetic,  from designer Luke Allan, which also reflects the particular nature of these poets, experimental, sequential. Similarly, take Bloodaxe and put an artist-poet on their roster and a new look appears, as with the Heather Phillipson below, designed by Phillipson and fellow poet-artist Ed Atkins.  


Yet its not just an outward aesthetic that new poetry design is reflecting but a range of artistic decisions to do with what we consider a poem at all. The willingness of ZimZalla, Knives, Forks and Spoons and others to put the time and resource into creating more complex creations such as Leanne Bridgewater and Philip Davenport's books below, reflects the hybrid nature of the contents. The books themselves are art objects. Slightly out of scope for here, but ZimZalla has pioneered a range of different presentations of poetry, often as far from a book as you can imagine. Bridgewater and Davenport are both artist-writers and so the works have a coherence. The latter oversaw a major anthology and exhibition of visual poetry. 

The thriving avant garde scene in Manchester means that quite a number of these presses are local, and attached to the now ended reading season "The Other Room." A book table was always available there. This year, a newer press ran and independent book fair in Manchester - and Dostoevsky Wannabe will be repeating this in early February. Their own books are another small press aesthetic - echoing old Penguin/Pelican designs - and again, using print on demand, in this case the much improved Amazon CreateSpace to create their books. The two books Richard Barrett has put out with them - "u make me laugh in a different way" and "The Acts", with Steve Hanson - cover a range of literary styles, prose, poetry, hybrid work, but the shared cover aesthetic makes all of their books desirable. If DW are using the new technologies, another local designer Lucy Wilkinson is using older techniques to create unique and highly desirable little booklets and books - again crossing over between text, poetry, prose and visual art. Her Death of Workers Whilst Building Skyscrapers imprint is politically charged but aesthetically driven. 

Over the last few years Tom Chivers' Penned in the Margins has become an imprint of excellence, and their design has grown to match. His own 2nd collection was radically white text on black background from Test Centre in 2015, so design is clearly at the heart of his own practice. Penned in the Margins books are always attractive such as "Spacecraft" below from John McCullough, but their most effective one to date was Luke Kennard's brilliant "Cain" where the last part of the book - has two texts running side by side and the design is critical to the literary aesthetic. 

Such aesthetic considerations are also at the heart of Amy McCauley's recent sold out collection "Oedipa", from Guillemot. Incorporating design on every page, like the Kennard book, such an ambitious layout might have been difficult to do at a reasonable cost a few years ago, but luckily the advances in print technology and digital design mean that even small presses can be highly ambitious. 

Aesthetic considerations are also behind Chris McCabe's "Shad Thames" from a few years ago, which appears in a box, with an envelope of detritus. Just through my door is the new collection from Richard Barrett under the Happy Books imprint, which comes as a glorious yellow square, with each page as vibrant as the inner sleeve of a record cover. This "Face Book" is a great way to end 2018. Barrett has been published by a few of the presses here - and there does seem a wonderfully collaborative nature to the scene in Manchester - and further afield, that is beginning to show great work, but also make it attractive and relevant. 

Clearly I've become attracted to the special edition, the odd work, the vibrant design. Most of these are single author collections - but its clear that representative anthologies of the future will need to be clever in how they present work given the wide range of original sources as to how it appears. Photography, design, collage as well as words are part of this renaissance in book design in contemporary poetry. Your bookshelves aren't designed to hold all of these of course, and there's something both ephemeral and to be cherished about such small run works, which is at one with the vibrancy of the writers who are producing this work. 

The number of poets who are also designers, artists, musicians or performers means that there is always going to be a fluidity beyond the single volume. Some of the best anthologies reflect this, others - like the Herbert/Price "Contraflow on the Super Highway" from last century or this "Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives" anthology from a few years back - are coming from the same D.I.Y. aspect. 

I limited myself in this article to books that I own, but there's clearly lots more out there - and I hope even the bigger presses are taking note - and they probably are - such as the larger footprint of the Danez Smith collection below. Like Shearsman's Lisa Robertson selection the larger cover creates a sense of permanence I think. 

I wanted to finish this survey with a few other favourites that don't fit into a particular category but showcase that in good poetry you can judge a book by its cover. First, the uniform C.B. Editions design,  in this case D. Nurkse, covering beautifully presented books, both fiction and poetry. And then striking designs from Christian Bok, Warsan Shire, Keston Sutherland, Agnes Lehoczky and Chris McCabe. If you're buying a poetry book this Christmas look out for any of these - the content and the cover won't disappoint.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Books Furnish a Room

Having just moved house, it means I've also moved around 100 large boxes of books, CDs and records. A month in, and I'm still only some way through the unpacking. This is deliberate accumulation, years rummaging the second hand and charity shops as well as buying new stuff. I seem to have replaced the reading of books with the buying of them.

That's perhaps a topic for another day. Clearly, building a personal library is different than just buying things to read, and the plethora of literary biographies and lit crit books testifies to that aim. But the library only works of course if you can find the books that you have got. With the internet still being quite stubborn about what is available online, it makes this resource both a valuable one and a frustrating one. There's also something about the context of a book - its font, its cover, its binding - which the virtual can never replicate.

More people than ever want to be writers, it seems in an age of instant gratification, the far from instant gratification of writing a novel is high on a lot of people's To Do lists. Perhaps this is the inevitable corollary to an educated workforce, many of whom are in dispiriting or uninspiring jobs. Despite all top employers asking for and valuing creativity, you'll find it near impossible to get a creative job without a hell of a lot of luck, graft and probably privilege.

Yet look at the thousands upon thousands of new flats popping up around Manchester and other cities, and they are hardly endowed with any storage, let alone room for bookshelves. Large glass windows, and integrated kitchen-living spaces reduce the amount of wall space available. We are a society driven by consumption, but have failed to create a space where we can enjoy what we can consume. No wonder the high street is dying to be replaced by "experiences", Years ago a girl at sixth form said she'd much rather spend her little money on a night out than a record, and at the time I disagreed with her - but over the years I guess I became far more outgoing. Yet the endless nights out morph into single memories, just as a pile of records becomes anonymous when hidden in a record case.

Without the charity shop I'm not sure where all these books would go - but even these seem to be reducing the space given over to books, CDs and DVDs. I reluctantly binned a load of VHS videos, thinking nowhere would take them. The one charity shop I know that has some still has them at 5 for £1. DVDs are going the same way - yet our reliance on paid for and subscription services is a risky one. Just as copyright restrictions meant it was often years before much loved BBC and ITV dramas and comedies made it onto a physical media, so it is nowadays, that the dog-eat-dog world of streaming services can see whole film catalogues disappear, even though absolutely everything appears to be on YouTube in one form or another. CDs are the same - the record industry having killed vinyl, only to see it become a revenue life saver, is rapidly killing CDs even though it remains their biggest selling format. One of the things that's happened is that the living room has been handed over to the tech giants who are far more interested in selling you the air that you breathe (or wifi that you watch) and the forever obsolete devices that act as filters than in offering you personal control over your living space. In the tiny city centre flat, where is the value in finding room for DVDs and the like?

Books do furnish a room however, and I'm spending the weekend building more bookcases. There still seems to be something noble and valuable in having, say, all Ian McEwan's novels together. But not just that - over the years I've picked up a few gems. I didn't realise I'd got half a dozen books by Jean Rhys for example, though I perhaps don't need three (so far) copies of "Wide Sargasso Sea", or a library of William Golding in their lovely 60s Faber covers, or those Nabokov reissues from the seventies with a uniform font and design. Putting all my poetry books in one place surprises me with the scope - though notably thin on the Picador-Cape-Faber establishment of the last twenty years, which tells its own story - whilst amongst my "most valuable" books (according to Abebooks at least) are several music related titles, as they rarely get reissued.

The idea of value is one that intrigues me. In a time when our experience of a Cafe Nero or Costa is worth £3 for an hour of contemplation and wifi, usually in a place that is too packed, and untidy, what price a novel? I'd struggle to sell most of mine for more than a penny (plus post and packing) online. Charity shops range from 75p to £3 for often the same book. Though I sometimes complain about Oxfam's prices (on records particularly), I can't criticise them for trying to value the books they sell more than the price of a hot beverage. I undertook an experiment a couple of years ago where I collected books I really loved and bought extra copies from charity shops when I saw them in near mint condition. I then sold them at a book fair for £4 each or 3 for a tenner, with a little bit of a back story. I did surprisingly well. Certain books will always fly off the shelves, the audience, unlike the audience for say, the first 2 Adele albums, is never sated. Recent bestsellers have included "The Handmaid's Tale", "The Great Gatsby" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" though all have been easily available secondhand for years.

The writers whose time has gone, I suspect are some of the big American boys (mostly boys) who dominate my shelves. The sheer prolificness of Roth, Bellow, Updike, Vidal and Mailer, as well as them being bestsellers in a time when books were read in numbers, means that they are as common as the Eagles' Greatest Hits. Rarity is the only thing that really appoints value, yet books are mass produced objects, so outside of small press poetry publications, and genuine first edition hardbacks, is there much that has value? The words should be enough of course, and its fascinating to note the amount of different covers that classics have had over the years, each reprint giving a book marketing department a chance for subtle changes or total overhauls. Beyond the big names, I'm struck by the number of books that already seem forgotten ready for pulping. You can wonder why a book like "Stoner" could be resurrected as a 21st century hit, but then when you see the sheer number of novels, good, bad and indifferent that have never won prizes or been otherwise recognised, its quite humbling as a writer who would still like to add one to the pile.