Friday, December 29, 2006

American Mythos

I've been thinking alot about the lure of the American "mythos" - the web of stories and underlying narrative that seems to inhabit so much American art. It's there in the wandering troubadour that was the young Bob Dylan; there again in the songs about cars and girls of the Beach Boys; and there in the deep musical and mythical certainties that seem to inhabit songs by contemporary artists like Midlake and the White Stripes. Clearly there are lots of different stories here; but the sense of space - the sense of escape - the sense of exploration - the sense, I guess, of freedom are key to all of this. This week, with both James Brown and Gerry Ford passing away, we see it again. The latter seems like from another distant age; perhaps because he was an old man - the oldest president - and that the other faces from 1974 are either dead or ageing; whilst James Brown seemed still with us to the end - he was due to play another concert on New Years Eve - and the music has its own mythos about it. Anthemic, rhetorical titles help, of course, but art, in this sense, ages, but doesn't grow old. Yet is it merely distance that makes me think that America has this underlying narrative that is worthy of constant exploration, whilst we have none? Writers like Jake Arnott and David Peace have tried to construct their own recent histories - yet its notable that whilst Peace's major influence, James Ellroy, weaves the Kennedys, Cuba and Watergate in his stories, Peace's latest book is Brian Clough, Don Revie, Leeds United. Arnott has said in interview that he wanted to find a different kind of gay history, in his approximations of sixties gangster homosexuality, and again, in the adrogyny of early seventies Bowie. You can see these writers looking closely at their own mythos, and where it's not there, creating it, but using the archetypes that they can relate to: working class culture, hidden gay history. What if you're neither gay or working class? Or for that matter Scottish or Irish - other "mythos" that writers are not afraid of plugging into? There's a great Catherine Tate scene where its a support group for ginger-haired people, and after fighting amongst themselves, they bond and sing a song of togetherness, before the camera goes outside the hall, where a KKK style hate-mob is converging on them, about to raise it to the ground. I could, I guess, try and uncover the hidden ginger history of these lands - but I don't think it's exactly what I'm looking for (and that sketch is funny if only because the colour of your hair isn't something that draws people together in any real way.) Given this - and given the difficulty of untangling class from English literature - it seems that my tradition, my mythos, is one of "dissent" - the tradition of Tom Paine, Wesley, the Chartists on the one hand; Coleridge and Southey's utopias - Aleister Crowley, Oz Magazine and CRASS on the other. Yet, here lies disappointment - magazines like Citizen 32 and Dreams That Money Can Buy, as well as online zines like 3AM Magazine, would probably put themselves in that tradition; yet there's something prosaic about good intention that doesn't always lead to good art (never mind the problems of dismal collections such as Poets Against the War). And besides, part of the allure of a mythos is the shorthand it provides for readers, audiences, magazines and publishers. I'm increasingly fed up with the commodification of literature (see previous posts on just about everything), but aren't nearly all literary bloggers? Yet are we part of a dissenting tradition when we've not yet matched rhetoric with art? It is one thing to kick over the statues, but another to replace them with something equally glorious (and art is nothing if it doesn't aspire to glory as well as the utilitarian). There are artists, of course, Dante or Faulkner come to mind, who formed their own mythos from what was their in their own personal life and circumstance - but how to do that? How to find that? I'm looking through my work wanting to find the sense of connectedness, which I know is there, and the essential way forward. Partly, my fiction is stalled, in ideas that I'm finding it hard to write except through very matter-of-fact prose; and tired with the lack of wonder in so much that I read, I'm reluctant to add mere stories to the pile. Yet, there's something honest about the story - it is a connection between reader and writer and doesn't require much in the way of pyrotechnics. Besides, without a shared mythos, where can find a connection?

Over (and under) production

Katy at Baroque in Hackney has an interesting post on the New Yorker cartoonists and compares it with the lot of poets and poetry. It got me thinking about under and over production of work - poetry in particular - but other stuff as well. Whichever way it falls I write about 20-30 decent (i.e. finished) poems a year. And "decent" is a difficult one. My quality control's better these days; I don't write nearly so many pointless poems - in the past I guess I'd sometimes try and write poetry even when the muse (or the idea) wasn't there. There's a lot of this overproduction goes on these days of course - a friend who is recently finishing an MA in poetry has to submit something like 30-50 poems; in other words two years of my work, and that would be in a good two years. I don't think there's many current poets we'll be looking forward to the "complete" as opposed to the "selected". Yet, what is a "good haul" these days? Katy says she manages about 10 "publishable" a year - a New Yorker cartoonist can submit 700 and get 5 accepted. Obviously some poets get in a verbal groove, which appears to lead to book after book, poem after poem, all equally good or bad depending on your viewpoint, but for the rest of us each poem is a struggle, each page is blank, and - though I'm fairly sure that in 2007 I might manage oh, between 20 and 30 okay poems - there's always the possibility that I may not.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Can people be right, when they're so wrong?

I'm amazed when someone doesn't like a book (or film) that I think is a masterpiece. Mainly because I think my standards are pretty high, and I don't overhype that many things I've read. Yet, its admirable to admit when you don't get something. Scott Pack's blog lists his books of the year, but also the ones he didn't like - and I guess its amazing that someone whose read 132 books in a year hasn't read Philip Roth before, given the classic run of novels since "American Pastoral". Having said that, I've not read his latest "Everyman", it sounded a little unappetising, a meditation on death more than anything else. I thought "Pastoral" was an unassailable masterpiece, the style of writing impeccable and uncopiable, and the breadth unheard of elsewhere in British and American fiction. "I married a communist" was sloppy in comparison though still captivating; "The Human Stain" both brave and foolhardy in its premise (and probably the one people should choose for their book club) and "The Plot Against America" ambitious, but overlong. These faults, of course, are all virtues! I've a lot of earlier Roth I'd like to read, but have only got round to a couple. "The Ghost Writer" - one of the Zuckerman books - is a stunning novella that, like all his novels, keeps you thinking long after you've finished reading it. As for Pack not liking "Catcher in the Rye", reading it in your thirties for the first time, must be similar to trying to understand what the Sex Pistols are about if you'd somehow never heard them until now. I've re-read "Catcher..." later in life and it still packs a punch, though I think you need that coming-of-age empathy that you get from reading it early. That said, I don't think Salinger's other work, the short stories - predominantly about the Glass family - should be read UNTIL you're in your thirties. All the stories are worth reading, but I particularly like the story-novella paring of "Franny and Zooey." (The Wikipedia writer seems to think its a I've not linked to it!) It still reads very modern, although the crises of faith in both stories is a little rarified for contemporary readers, and I still think the Glass stories as a whole are one of the touchstones of 20th century literature. That Salinger himself ran out of road as the last stories came out, is hardly surprising - since in trying to determine a truth about human existence, they inevitably become more and more inward, so that by the last Glass story (published in the New Yorker, but never republished or collected), "Hapworth 16, 1924", there's nowhere left to go except into silence. So, going back to Pack, can people be right when they're so wrong? Yes, indeed, "Everyman" may well not be for everyone, and "Catcher in the Rye" is certainly not for us thirtysomethings, at least not the firs time. I've worked it out with film - I do like a particular type of stylised movie that some people simply hate, and I'm not adverse to a little sentimentality. With books, its somehow different. I do still believe that some writers are better than others, that some books are better than others, and some books/writers are so stunning that if you don't appreciate them (even if you don't like them), then you need a good reason why. And it works the other way, of course, elsewhere on the blog is a list of books Pack does love. Admittedly I found Jasper fForde, both unreadable and charityshopdonationable; but I'm tempted to try and find time for a few on his list, Brad Listi, for instance. That's the good thing about people who read 132 books a year, they can sort out wheat from chaff for the rest of us! One Christmas TV moment of literary note - in the otherwise mindnumbingly predictable "The Vicar of Dibley" - at Geraldine's book group they all sit down to read Zadie Smith's "On Beauty", and none of them have read it. Zadie shouldn't worry too much about this - I think being seen as the obvious book group choice on something as safe and uncontroversial as the Christmas special of Vicar of Dibley, means she's really up there with the greats!

The Novelmaker Wizard for Word 97

(I just came across this short piece, whilst I was doing a bit of "housekeeping" of my PC. Not sure when I wrote it, but it seems a suitable end-of-year piece.)

The Novelmaker Wizard for Word 97

This wizard is compatible only with Microsoft Word 97. Earlier versions were not supported by the wizard and for later versions you are advised to download the appropriate upgrate, such as Novelmaker Wizard for Word 2003.
This read me file is supplied in addition to the online help function, however, the wizard has been designed to take you directly through the novel writing process without any further necessary knowledge.
The wizard was developed after it was discovered that many people were using Microsoft Word and associated products to produce novels. This ad hoc approach to writing indicated a demand for a product that would help standardise novel writing, to the benefit of all. Novelmaker Wizard is not currently available for other platforms such as Macintosh OS and Linux, however it is hoped that developments in the future will use the proprietary standard developed here.
The Novelmaker Wizard makes use of existing computer skills such as word processing, drag and drop, cut and paste, and style sheets. It is expected that your novels will benefit from being spellchecked and grammar checked and autocorrected by the standard functions in your word processing package. It is not the aim of Novelmaker Wizard to write the novel for you, simply to make it easier for you to do so and to introduce standards that mean your novel, once completed, will be of a publishable quality and similar to all other novels published.
Although other platforms (e.g. pen and paper) have been used for writing novels in the past they had obvious drawbacks. The lack of a word count in particular meant that some novels (e.g. Moby Dick, The Fountainhead) were far too long and some (e.g The Great Gatsby) were a little short. This causes problems for novel buyers who are increasingly likely to demand a standardised product. Novelmaker Wizard is fully customisable however it is recommended that the proper length of your novel is between 60,000 and 100,000 and these are the default settings. To change these, please see the online help.
The chosen font for your novel is Times New Roman, 12 Point. We realise you may want to change this, but it is has been proven that manuscripts written in this font are more likely to be taken seriously by overworked publishing executives.
The Novelmaker Wizard has several "Chapter" options that can be set at the outset. Because the contemporary reader is likely to be put off by long chapters the default setting for Chapter Length is four thousand words. Within this there are also defaults for Section and Paragraph. Clearly, there are novels that do not adhere to these standards, but frankly, who'd be interested in reading them? As always, there is a manual mode, but it rather defeats the object of using the wizard in the first place. Don't worry if your first draft overruns the suggested Paragraph, Section and Chapter lengths - they will be automatically adjusted to fit. (There are 2 options available: either split into 2 or more Paragraphs, Sections or Chapters or use the Novelmaker's extensive summarize functions to remove extraneous lines.)

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Overdoing it

I know Christmas is the time of overindulgence, but now I've signed up beyond the free trial period for eMusic, I'm at risk of having more music than its ever possible to listen to, to go with the more books than I'll ever get to read. I love hearing new stuff, but it's also important to hear familiar music as well - and not just "Merry Christmas Everybody." So for now other reason, than the need to remind myself, here's my favourite tracks, in no particular order, from the and albums I've listened to this year. I might even burn a CD of them to listen to during the Christmas period.

So my tracks of the year would have to be…

1. Kona Coast – the Beach Boys (MIU Album)
2. A Fond Farewell – Elliot Smith (From the Basement to the Hill)
3. Amoreena – Elton John (Tumbleweed Connection)
4. Crash Street Kids – Mott The Hoople (The Hoople)
5. Sleeps with Angels – Neil Young (Sleeps with Angles)
6. Miss Black America – Curtis Mayfield (Curtis)
7. Major Leagues – Pavement (Terror Twilight)
8. Fake Tales of San Francisco – Arctic Monkeys (Whatever I say I am...)
9. Beautiful – Christina Aguilera (Stripped)
10. Standing in Your Shadows – Puressence (Only Forever)
11. Roscoe – Midlake (Trials of Van Occupanther)
12. Mucky Fingers – Oasis (Don’t Believe the Truth)
13. Loose – The Stooges (Funhouse)
14. Can’t You Hear Me Knocking – Rolling Stones (Sticky Fingers)
15. Lets Go Together – Jefferson Airplane (Blows Against the Empire)
16. Shining Star – Earth, Wind & Fire (That’s the Way of the World)
17. That Summer Feeling – Jonathan Richman (I, Jonathan)
18. We Need a War – Fischerspooner (Odyssey)
19. T-Shirt – Destiny’s Child (Destiny Fulfilled)
20. Better to Have It – Bobby Purify (Better to Have It)

Happy Christmas

Friday, December 22, 2006

271 Chris Moyles books and counting

I was in Waterstones in Manchester earlier looking for poetry magazines when my friend pointed out that the radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles had a book out. I'm only vaguely acquainted with Moyles but know that he is loud and shouty, and very radio. What on earth could he have a book out for? On page eight of the book he says something along the lines of, "I'm on page 8, who'd have thought I'd have got this far?" Its basically written by an illiterate 10 year old, albeit one who is published in hardback at £16.99. Bearing in mind it was in the arts and literature section of the shop I couldn't resist asking the assistant if they'd actually sold any of this absurd piece of publishing industry rubbish. I expected him to say "no", but diligently he looked it up on the computer. Waterstones in Manchester has sold 271 copies of this piece of illiterate shit. It's 304 pages are currently number 39 in the Amazon bestsellers chart.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Preview: "Loosely"

The last two years, I've collated recent poems in small pamphlets, "2004" and "The Question." This year I wasn't sure whether the poetry I'd written was finished enough for this treatment - yet two sequences I'd written earlier in the year, along with a smattering of individual poems - mean that I'm just putting the finishing touches to a 3rd pamphlet, "Loosely." I guess the poems are "loosely" connected in style and subject, and besides, I like the word. You can download the previous collections here, as a PDF, and I'll make the new collection available in the same way. However, if anyone would like a hardcopy - it should be available by the first week of January - then just email (adrian dot slatcher at gmail dot com) your name & address, and I'll put one in the post.

The contents page, subject to minor change, is here....


Part 1: Last Lines

To thaw the freezing in our hearts
Twenty Years Left in the Rain
Changing Colours Over Time
The Fear of Sight to the Long Since Blind
We Were Never Good in Water
Of Love and Death in the American Novel
Making out I am grateful after all
In Any Garden But Eden
As the day, so the night
Drinking and Eating All on My Own
Tending the garden for your return
When Every Photograph is Packed Away
But Something Isn’t Loving

Part 2: October

1: “Clusters of birds are making their way south – “
2: “Damn life continues in some unholy way – “
3: “Could I have done things better?”
4: “Where I was when the mood struck – “
5: “Did the tragedy happen offstage?”

Part 3: Other Poems

Stay Here
I, Conservationist
Dog Clouds
The Dream with the Butterflies
The Decemberists
The Ordinary is not Necessary
The End of the Story

...and the most recent poem, "The Decemberists" is below. Happy Christmas

The Decemberists

The year has been the warmest yet
    and we notice the signs -:
It is December, yet half the trees are dressed;
    late autumnal browns amongst the evergreens –
And the late afternoon red sky
    acts as a banding of lights
Blinking through the impatient leaves,
    lighting a runway for birds.

Last week, I woke to find
    a carrion crow -:
Strutting with a Salford air,
    its bright eyes and tongue-beak
Daring the world to approach.
    The city is returning to nature,
And nature returns to the streets –
    gaunt foxes out looking for twilight rucks.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Books of the Year? Not a chance.

It's traditional to give a list of ones books of the year, but so patchy is (a) my buying and (b) my reading that it's near impossible to think of something I've actually read that came out in 2006. I did enjoy Tobias Hill's "Nocturne in Chrome & Sunset Yellow", a collection of poetry mostly about living in London, yet finding the pastoral in the city, rather than merely the everyday. A welcome romanticism that also finds room to namecheck iPods, and is contemporary enough to let the outside horrors of the Asian tsunami in. And I've just received from the very handsome "Up is Up..." about the downtown New York literary scene - the size of the Argos catalogue but infinitely more inspiring its a single-book archive, featuring artwork and photographs as well as the literature. An exemplary work from the always excellent NYUP. Its been a year when we saw the wonderfully diverse Verberate nights come to an end, and magazines like Transmission, the Quiet Feather, Citizen 32 (I've a short article on self censorship in the latest issue), and Parameter consolidate themselves. (See links on the side of the page for these and other magazines.) In other words; our very own downtown literary scene is going very nicely. Interesting, as well, that now magazines like Unquiet Desperation and Libertine are using Myspace as a way of growing their audience. (Blogs are so last year, don't you think?). I have some concerns, of course. The blog and the Myspace - and the internet in general - seem to be good at potting, concising, anthologising, cataloguing. They are quickly read, half-read, hardly read. Great for journalism (and indeed for "journal"-ism such as this) and for informing and selling, but the art, the culture remains elsewhere, in the book, the film, the album that we're writing about or selecting from or pointing to. Perhaps its because its so difficult to monetarise the web - that any good art created on it, soon moves off it - to the book deal, the record deal, the film deal.


I've talked before about the difference between British and American novels/novelists - and its interesting to read that the American's like our writers, yet according to novelist Benjamin Markovits, "England, as it appears in the US bestseller charts, is the country of Oxbridge and public schools." The thing is, he's not wrong is he? Our Ian McEwans and Zadie Smiths and Kazuo Ishiguros are all happiest in "traditional, elitist, class-ridden" England. There's many other Englands, yet our most successful writers ignore them, or only acknowledge them when set against the status quo of the establishment. Whilst these writers are our most successful exports, what chance that publishers will look elsewhere?

Monday, December 11, 2006

This story must have a valid ticket and cannot travel before 9.30

It is with mixed feelings that I draw attention to Virgin Trains' Short story competition. I would suggest you avoid writing it on a weekend, before 9.30 in the morning, or, if in London, during rush hour. The subject is "time" with a certain amount of irony, I hope. I have lost more time on Virgin trains than I'd like to think about. However, although that lost time could be well used, (a) if you've got a pen and paper/laptop (b) you've actually got a seat. I actually wrote the first chapter of my short novel "The Badger Farm Report" longhand on a trip to London, and several poems; and I wrote a very dark short story called "Last Train from Euston". There is a prize for the winner, and since nobody actually has time to read these days, it's a 500 word maximum.


Perhaps because I spent a dozen years recording synthesizer-based music, people sometimes expect me to be listening to a non-stop diet of Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, and Kraftwerk, with a smattering of Aphex Twin and Chemical Brothers for when I'm feeling a bit more modern. Yet, I've rarely done so - and those artists feature only marginally in my collection - but with it coming to the end of the 2006, what have I been listening to? This year it's been many things, but the artists I've kept coming back to are the Beach Boys (particular their 70s recordings), Elliot Smith, Mott the Hoople and Neil Young (his 90s stuff mainly.) All very melodic stuff, but with a bit of a rhythmic spine to it. That said, I've also a bit of a thing for synth/rock crossover at the moment - Tackhead, Fischerspooner, George Clinton and Armand Van Helden. Electronic rock often gets as bad a press as funk-rock; but when it's done well...

Saturday, December 09, 2006

A Christmas Present from the Poetry Society

The poetry society website has been so bad, so ugly, for so long, that I'd given up on thinking that someone there might ever notice. Even as Poetry Review changed editors, or redesigned; even as schemes came and went; and national poetry days sped by; the Poetry Society retained the worst website around. I even used it as an exemplar of a bad site, (I advise on websites, particular to the creative sector) and compared it with the easy to use Poetry Book Society site. Well, its a very welcome Christmas present to see that the new site looks nice and fresh, and is relatively simple to use. It would be interesting to know how much they paid for this one - any more than £10,000 and they were robbed! It's a straightforward website for a straightforward organisation, and my only criticism would be that they've tried to squeeze a couple of things - a calendar and an online shop - into what is little more than a standard content managed template. It will do for now, and as any website like this is only as good as its information, its far better than they find it easy to use and keep up to date. A qualified well done; but I do wonder why it took so long?

Monday, December 04, 2006

Borges v. BBC4

Just reread Borges' classic story Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. It's been a while since I've read it, but it repays every re-reading. In the past I've been drawn by this idea of a parallel world, that's been created and can only be seen through a few scraps of writing about it; but this reading, its the end of the story that really got me - that it's the ideology of that world, the systemic certainty of that world, which makes people in this world start to take it on as their own mythology, their own language. Clearly it has resonance with the Nazis, but it's more than that, in the current day and age - you can look at it two ways; the "year zero" of the internet, the alternate reality of reality TV, where these people are our friends, our families, the weddings to which we're invited; and, much darker, I guess, the reliance on a partial "made up" text to guide our life. I'd not quite thought through the religious significance of that; but serendipitously, I was watching BBC4 tonight about the lost gospels; and how the gospels of Thomas, Peter, Philip and Mary Magdalene were excluded from the Bible. There's radicalism in these other testaments - the gnosticism of Thomas, a set of aphorisms which may be older than the ones we know; the idea that the man Jesus was inhabited by a spirit that then left him before he died on the cross; the separating of the vengeful God of the Old Testament from the New Testament Jesus. All of these things seem more plausible for our current age than the one's we've grown up with. Is it any more frightening than the idea that we can turn into the imaginary Tlon; that we can rely on this imaginary Bible? Fascinating stuff, and I'm still not tempted to read "Da Vinci Code." (Besides, I've got a lot more Borges to revisit.)

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The difficulties of writing a sandwich

One of these days, I was going to write an essay comparing American and British fiction which will be called "How to Write an American Sandwich", because, whilst a character in an English novel will generally have "a sandwich" or if a particularly show off of a writer "a cheese sandwich" characters in an American novel will have something that lasts at least a paragraph, never mentions the sandwich, and will at some point mention "pastrami" and "rye". It seems a particular kink of our linguistic differences that English writers generally accept some things as being so obvious ("sandwiches" "doors" "Baronets" etc.) that they don't bother to illuminate them for the reader; whilst the American writer is aware, that without having a class system to help define his/her characters, he needs to give a little more information, and that inevitably includes a detailed description of what they eat. I was reading about American food for years before most of it made it into our supermarkets, and I could at last find what they were talking about. I even parodied/homaged this with a sandwich recipe of my own (yet to be made flesh), in a story, "Bat-She-Bop." So I can't say I was that surprised to read that McDonalds' is trying to patent making a sandwich. Charles Bukowski would be proud.

Poets as novelists...

Scott Pack has enlisted his readers' help for an article he's writing on the rash of poets as novelists. I guess its not a new rash - I wrote a similar article in 1999,(originally for PROP magazine, but never came out - you can read it here) noting how many were going down this route. It's strange, though, since most of the writers I know personally are either/or - they simply don't "get" the other discipline. I guess its more acute for fiction writers, who generally don't even seem to read poetry, never mind write it. Yet, there's quite a few poets I've met, mostly doing MA in poetry writing, admittedly, who can't imagine being fictionalists. Of course, many of these might stretch to the odd short story - and Comma Press, for instance, has often encouraged, not always wisely, this multi-tasking. Historically, the crossover has been minimal - at least amongst the successful ones - and this is probably the main point: if someone's successful at something, they'll keep at it, or if they're asked to do it, they'll keep at it. I've no doubt that a lot of the "brand name" contemporary poets, have simply decided to write novels as an alternative "day job" no less palatable than teaching or reviewing. The example of Nick Laird, who issued a debut novel and debut poetry collection in days of each other, is rare, but perhaps shouldn't have been - he's been around the literary edges for a while, and both a novel and a poetry collection take time. I'd be very surprised if he gave up writing novels until writing novels gives up on him; (i.e. he doesn't get a deal); whereas poetry is always possible as a glorified hobby with smaller publishers than Faber willing to take on board those ditched by the bigger publishers. From my survey a few years ago; the type of writers who thrive at both genres are those who've got a unique sensibility, and the form - poetry, short story or novel - hardly matters. These writers are usually more innovative - modernists or beats - their muse more important than the format, which has yet to be codified. At their best, they expand and join together the genres. I fear that many of the contemporary poet/fictionalists are merely moving their main subject into another genre, sometimes with less than sparkling results. So, there was something quite refreshing about Sophie Hannah's chick lit bon mots in her poetry, but turned into novels, she was suddenly in a very crowded field. Her latest successful book, is a thriller, a genre that, if successful, can be a career for life. Perhaps she's found her true calling? As for Simon Armitage his engaging poetry seemed to address a certain angsty working class male sensibility that you rarely found in poetry - yet in a novel, what is left, other than the plot and that predictable masculinity? Interesting that the more successful poet-novelists of late, Gerard Woodward's two autobiographical novels for instance, David Constantine's short stories, Jackie Kay's "Trumpet", have found subjects that translate well between the genres. Yet, Kay aside, they've perhaps been more "poets' poets", less known outside of the specialisms. It's perhaps too early to judge whether any of these writers will last - yet its interesting that Carcanet, the poetry specialists, has recently published poetry collections by writers more known as novelists, Anthony Burgess and Muriel Spark. Perhaps the lesson here, as with Plath, Lawrence, Joyce or Carver is that where a writer's sensibility is strong enough to be worth re-reading, then whatever they've written is worthy of investigation. Poets' beware, your "day job" novels could wreck your date with posterity! One thing we really encouraged with Lamport Court, and I'm sure will continue, was writing that didn't easily fit into the poetry or fiction (or even art) boxes. Artists like Tamzin Forster were as likely to be writing poetry or fiction for us as providing an art piece, whilst published poets like Togara Muzanenhemo and Chris McCabe were given room for longer pieces that were in many ways more narrative than poetry. Prose poems, and poetic pieces of prose rubbed shoulders with more traditional work.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Prematurely Reviewing the Year

Now its December I think I can offer a little reflection on my creative year. A little early, but I know how December pans out, and time for reflection goes by the wayside. I doubt anything particularly exciting is likely to happen in the next month, anyway. I've not had as much time for reading, writing, watching films, going to galleries as I'd like. I managed a couple of days with work in Brussels, and a couple of trips to London, one for the modernism exhibition at the V&A. I was trying to remember when I last went to the cinema - it might even have been Ken Loach's "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" when I was over in Liverpool. A long hot summer put me off being indoors more than was necessary. Creatively, I seem to have been hardly awake at all: yet I finished the first draft of the novella I started in 2005. There's been a couple of decent short stories as well, but I'd wanted to write more - or at least complete more; there's a number I've started, and perhaps the one thing I might find some time to do before the end of the year. Not that it matters that much; since outlets remain limited - my stories tend to be over 3000 words in general, so a lot of magazines look for something shorter. I've also almost completed a 3rd poetry pamphlet, with around 25 poems, more metaphysical than usual, probably more consistent in tone. But need to spend a little more time on it before I make it available. Collation - of my music in particular - has taken up more energy than creation; it's not a bad thing to do, but I always wish I'd more time - or was able to create more time - to make some new music as well as new fiction/poetry. There's clearly a limit to what I can fit in. It seems a year of treading water; and though this blog has kept me a little connected in a literary sense; I've not had time or inclination to hobnob that much. "Verberate" was a nice regularly literary evening out, and I read at it earlier in the year; more nervous than I'd been at past readings, for some reason. Though I think I'm a good reader, I don't think I'm that disposed to reading - or that my work's particularly suitable for it. That was poetry of course. I've read a few books this year, and tried to fit in more than usual. I liked Sebastian Barry's "A Long, Long Way", but was as likely to read genre fiction - Asimov, Paretsky - as contemporary literature. The literary prizes haven't seemed particular exciting - or even consistent this year - and I think we're suffering a little from a new voice, or a new way of seeing things. Politics, so often out of the frame, has made some little comeback, but inevitably its non-fiction books rather than the increasing number of novels referencing "the war against terror" that most of us turn to. I don't seem to have either the patience, or the routine, to embed reading into my life in the way that I'd like, and whether I get a new job or stay where I am, improving that equilibrium seems a key one. I've got time - as time spent writing this blog proves - but haven't got the focus I used to have. That said, the one longer story that I did write, which I'm still waiting to hear from one of our slower magazines about, is as good as any I've written, I think. I believe I'm somehow sharpening my own political intent in the things I am writing, and effectively. The sometime ephemera of contemporary life seems to get more ephemeral as time goes by; whether its the Z-list celebrities of reality TV shows, or the bitesized commentary of so many blogs. I'm writing a new story this weekend, which is about the ephemera of success/popularity - how the opportunities it can sometimes provide often squeeze out the original reason you were doing things. Its thinking about the designer Peter Saville now creating a "brand" for Manchester; and what that sort of corporate commission might do to a creative's muse. "YouTube" and "MySpace" for instance, despite their estimable worth as "connectors", seem to create an endless clickable nothingness. I'm perhaps at an age and time in my life, where I want something with a little more depth - and yet contemporary culture seems less willing to provide it. I end up on little annoying crusades, like that which Patrick Ness has joined today in the Guardian, complaining about the poor quality of most books these days. Its ironic, that at a time when the "physical" product - whether book, CD or film - is under an assault from the "virtual", the care that once went into that physical product seems so much less. Its not just the yellowing pages of non-acid-free paper, but the seeming lack of interest in creating a product that will last beyond the season. In the next few weeks, I'm going to start early on new years resolutions: read more, write more. The blog still helps more than it hinders, but I'm wondering for how long?

A story

I haven't been too bothered about the kerfuffle started by Rachel Cooke in the Observer, dissing online reviews in favour of newspaper ones. For me, the Guardian/Observer have long ago stopped being an essential cultural lead. But I've always had a bit of a disdain for journalists anyway. This is not me being bitter that I'm not a writer for the 4th Estate - in fact I've hardly ever tried to get anything in a newspaper, and then its been against my better judgement. What I've found is that journalists I've had some dealings with are almost always very disorganised; unreachable when you want to speak to them; but insist on an instant response when they want to speak to you. A few years ago I was asked to contribute to a debate on the digital opportunities for writers, for the defunkt City Life, and after a phone conversation, also sent it in an email. The misquoting was ludicrous, lax, lacking sense. And there was no excuse for it - my words were there in order, ready to cut and paste. Another time, I almost did some writing for Janet Street Porter when she was editing the Independent on Sunday. I'd come up with some story ideas; they'd been passed on to a particular editor, who rang me up desperate to get in touch - having presumably been told to by JSP - and then, when I fleshed out the ideas and sent them through; nothing, despite repeated phone calls. "Did you get them?" "Oh yes, they're here, I've got your email but I've not opened the attachments." "So, you've not read them?" "No." "But you asked for them..." etc etc. But my worst story, I'll leave till last. In 1999, having completed my MA in novel writing, and combining finishing of the book with some voluntary work, I was, for a period on the dole. I'd paid my stamp for a good nine years, so was totally entitled to this "Job Seekers' Allowance." I found myself, rarely, at a rather high-brow (and low drinking) literary party in Clapham. Imagine how lucky I thought I was, when, in the kitchen, I got talking to someone who was the then new fiction editor of the Observer. How fortuitous!. "I'm writing a novel," I said. "But what do you do?" she said. "Like I said..." "But where do you work..." "I'm actually unemployed at the moment." "That's just diabolical," she said. "You're scabbing off all of us paying our taxes." "I'm finishing my novel, I'm doing voluntary work, yes, I'm going to get a job when I've finished..." I spluttered. "That's not just good enough," she said, and left to chat up my mate. It was quite amusing to think of her, a few years later, when this journalist moved on to one of the few well-paid jobs in British poetry! I wondered what she said to all the poets she was now meeting. "What do you mean? You've never wonderfully bohemian!" Despite my day job's being anything but ideal; I don't think I'd ever have had the appropriate levels of shamelessness to be proper journalist.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Lame at Fast

Crumbs. I'm now RSS fed into the wonderful "Britlitblogs" which now has a new autumnal look, your one stop shop for people like me making ill observed but well intentioned comments about things that may or may not be literature.


I've been enjoying "The State Within", BBC's American Ambassadorial drama, but mainly for the editing and the acting. The script, though riveting in the way it sets up its conspiracies, is actually one of the worst ever. Until this week's episode the whole farrago could have been overturned if the ambassador had found out that the "internal mole" was his MI6 trusted agent. Everything in the plot went through this guy, who just so happened to sleeping with his US equivalent. None of the leaks or anything else would have happened if he'd told Mark what was going on. But this week, oh god, despite him betraying the ambassador's new girlfriend, and destroying evidence of his wife's death, as soon as this duplicitousness is out in the open, Mark's treating him like trusted best buddy again. The ridiculousness of this has ruined my enjoyment of "The State Within" from day one. The multiple conspiracies, the unconnected strands, I don't mind that; but the whole thing been easily seen through if the secret service guy actually did his job rather than just shagging his American mate. Even though "24" and "Spooks" are far less realistic than this, neither of them is quite so dependent on such a bad plot point. Now that it's out, and Mark knows who the internal enemy is, they've become a bloody double act for chrissakes! Yes, I still enjoy it, but such terrible scriptwriting has come close to scuppering it entirely.