Thursday, April 24, 2008

Towards a first collection

The Poetry Trust, who I've been doing some work with lately, run a course called "Towards a First Collection", which if I ever did go on a poetry course, might be the one I went on. I suppose I don't want a course to get me to write poetry, since I seem to write poetry without ever having been on a course (in ebbs and flows, but it always returns); yet something about structuring these "single things" into a something coherent is a challenge that I'm not sure a poet should do on their own. I'm perhaps of the Whitman school, where my "selected poems" should be revised every year or so as "the leaves of grass" were, rather than the formal stricture of the slim volume. The latter has never really appealed, though I'd perhaps like to be a good enough poet to write these curiously static works; static in the sense that often the gap between completion of a manuscript and publication is closer to forever than not. Since we mostly read poems in the singular - or as a career summary - the poet is more akin to the pop band than the serious artist, more Girls Aloud, Blur or Madness than Portishead or Pink Floyd. I like picking up slim volumes, old and new, to see poems in their original context - it can make an old poem seem unfamiliar again. So, I'm in the process of putting together a "first collection" or a "selected poems" via the print-on-demand publishers and wonder when it became such an immense job to do so. Every poem requires something... some reformatting perhaps, even - heaven forbid! - a small revision - or a slight change to the title, or nothing at all, other than its placing next to the poem before and after. I'm being vaguely chronological, but even that has its downsides, something to do with balance - a series of similarly styled poems can suddenly dominate - and what of those lovely little one offs (the between album songs, the b-sides, the for-the-soundtrack moment), how to squeeze them in without squeezing them out. There are, I guess two types of collection - the one that narrows, the one that widens. A first collection should probably be the first of these, a selected the second. This is both and neither. It could take some months.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Things I like and dislike about Litt

Things I like and dislike about Toby Litt:
Likes... his short stories; his appropriate name; his spare, but imaginative prose style, his Englishness (he takes archetypes and brings them home),
Dislikes... his novels, that spare style when it goes all new puritan, his Englishness (he makes archetypes little and parochial), that his book titles are alphabetical.

Actually, I'm joking a bit, because I like Toby Litt but only seem to come back to him when he has some short stories out. But the book title thing did annoy me a bit, okay, its a nice OuLiPo like conceit, but it kind of plays fast and loose with something that's a bit close to my heart, that a book finds its own title in the writing of it. Anyway, I'm reading and enjoying his addition to the rock and roll fiction genre "I play the drums in a band called okay"; and it highlights all of the above really. I've always enjoyed these stories when they've come up in anthologies, and packaging them together this way, with a discography of the band, and some kind of chronological order, is the kind of thing I like in an author. Yet, there's also something very English (or now I come to think about it: Canadian) about his choice of band. For "okay" are a Canadian emo band. It's that littleing down of things (a bit like Beatniks was "On the Road" for Gap year students or something) that I'm talking about. Rock and roll doesn't get much less interesting than a Canadian emo band. And of course, its the fucking drummer writing it! (Even worse). But that's because its not a book about rock and roll at all, but about love, about failure, about maleness, about success, about a group of mates. I'd like to think that in this postmodern world there will be a band formed called okay, featuring 4 guys called Crab, Mono, Syph and Clap (yeah, I know!) who will set themselves the task of writing and recording okay's discography just as it says in the back of the book. And it would be crap, as only a Canadian emo band can be. Books about music can either take the fall from grace of a megastar (see Espedair Street) or something little (the Commitments), and I guess - a bit like the Cameron Crowe movie Almost Famous - Litt has gone for a middle ground, a band believably second tier, so with the potential to be Spinal Tap, but without inevitably settling into that absurdity. I reckon, pace Simon Armitage, most writers wish they could have been rockstars. Perhaps its a failure of imaginative nerve, when they invent one only to be the drummer in okay, but then anyone will tell you, a good drummer's worth his weight in gold. This isn't as good as Motley Crue's "The Dirt" of course, but then what Canadian emo band could be?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

No new paradigms - just old gimmicks

The Friday Project formed a couple of years ago with a unique and interesting proposition - taking the best of the web, and making these sites into books. I've just read that its no more, having gone into liquidation. The new paradigm - getting books to the market, quicker, and sourcing them directly from the bloggers and other sites doing innovative stuff on the web - doesn't seem to have helped in the way that mattered: selling books in shops. Dreadful news for hopeful writers such as Nasim Marie Jafry, and Caroline Smailes, as well as bookseller turned blogger-editor-agent Scott Pack, whose amusing blog gave a sense that all was well in the world of the Friday Project. I guess I hoped that this small publisher, punching above its weight, would grow, and be successful, but I have to admit to always having my reservations. The bulk of their books seemed to be "toilet books" of one sort or another, seasonal stocking fillers such as Velcro Cows and TV Cream Toys; in other words gimmicky books with a short shelf life that we've all got a few off (Lost Consonants, the Meaning of Liff, Schott's Miscellany) but rarely add more than a bit of gaiety to life. No crime in itself; and I was looking forward to their list growing to include more fiction, and more interesting books. But, case in point, I've not bought a thing they've published. There's no crime in small publishers - as well as large publishers - publishing this harmless tat, and, I guess if you get a big hit (The Little Book of Calm perhaps), then it can help keep other more cerebral parts of your list going for years. However, I'm wondering if this is the very problem: by trying to grow as a publisher through selling on the internet's more gimmicky ideas, you need to have more hits than misses. And books like this, though they can become brands, are - like hit videos on YouTube - transitory one-offs, and none, ironically, had really "gone viral." The Friday Project was - at the end of the day - publishing the kind of books that every major publishes ad infinitum perhaps without the capitalisation (or the hits) to make their independence a virtue. Maybe with its assets and staff under the auspices of a major(HarperCollins according to Publishing News) the Friday Project will find some kind of future; but there's no new paradigm here, just the same old publishing business. Ouch. I'd like to be think here's something to be said for the old fashioned idea, of investing in authors rather than gimmicks.Whether this is a cautionary tale for serious (but niche) publishers also using the internet, like Salt and Snowbooks we'll have to see.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Music & F(r)iction

I'm always keen on finding the occasional confluences of literature and music; but the latest gives particular pleasure. A few years on from "Manchester, England" and the City Life Book of Manchester Stories, and over a decade since "Disco Biscuits", Manchester's demi monde is probably overdue a literary overskating, and who better to do it than Joe Stretch, who when he's not been writing "Friction", his well received debut, is playing with the band Performance. They appropriated the early eighties electronica that has since - through everyone from Dfa records to New Young Pony Club - become a de rigeur of cool; but typically, perhaps because they always delved in the deeper, more blood-soaked end of the pool, they've remained on the edge of both Manchester (and pop's) vision. All the better then that Stretch has moved into a more (or less?) respectable career. I've never really met him or the band, though used to read poetry at the same venues/same nights as they were around, but a few years ago, they were asking for stories written about their songs, and I wrote a short piece called "Architecture and police", which was, for a while, on their website. I look forward to reading his fictional debut.

If being in a band qualifies you to write about the city life, then being a (youngish) (male) writer seems to make you wish you were in a band. Simon Armitage has been all around the papers with "Gig", a prose memoir both about performing, and about not being in a band - whilst Toby Litt has collected his music stories together in a new book , "I play the drums in a band called okay"- so there's two books by writers who weren't in bands, and one by someone who was. Featured in that long ago City Life book was Mark E. Smith of the Fall of course, and his own long-awaited autobiography is out shortly, with an extract in today's Guardian. Following in the footsteps of that other hard-to-figure punk-poet Dylan; one's tempted to think that literature and music might mix after all. It just depends which side of the album you want to play first.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Accessibility of Inaccessibilty

I've been to more poetry readings than a sane man should have ever been to. Yet I've rarely had a happier time than at the Old Abbey tonight, when Alan Halsey, Geradline Monk and Tom Jenks read, as the first of a regular reading of so-called avant garde poets. I'm not so sure. Halsey made fun, as an ex-bookseller might, of Ashbury's "Tennis Court Oath", and its value to collectors, "it always seemed to be the 4th edition, so we wondered if there ever was an earlier one; there was..."; Geraldine Monk confronted Mary Queen Of Scots head on, to great effect; whilst Tom Jenks managed to fit in both religious and secular saints (The Magic Band, thanks, Tom!). Reading from his very visual new collection, A Priori, you relished the words, whilst hankering for the visuals. My reluctant friend (there for a beer), enjoyed it thoroughly and bought the book. Go figure.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Various Things

With a new official biography of V.S. Naipaul coming out, there's been quite a lot of features about the venerable writer. He always gets referred to as our best prose writer, yet, apart from reading "A House for Mr. Biswas" many years ago, I've never read him. Probably not surprisingly, Biswas, wasn't the kind of book that really floats my boat, but I might try one of his other novels one of these days, to assuage my ignorance!

Tomorrow sees the first night of "The Other Room" with Tom Jenks, Alan Halsey and Geraldine Monk. I'm intrigued to find how it will differ from readings with more traditional writers.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Torchwood, Dr. Who etc.

Torchwood finished its second series this week, just as Dr. Who begins its 4th (since being revived.) I was an avid watcher of this season's Torchwood, which was pretty consistent in tone, had good stories, and was quite clever in its use of back stories. That's the model of course, probably originated in the X-Files, where "stand alone" episodes are slotted into bigger story arcs. It's the latter story arcs that create the real emotional buy in, I think, and Dr. Who is certainly better when it does them, rather than too many episodes seeing Rose or Dawn or Martha being chased down another corridor by another alien. I know its inevitable these days, but there's so much other stuff that goes on around the TV series - from the "making of" documentaries shown incessantly on the digital channels, to the tours of the TV studios. I felt like I already knew the story for the new Dr. Who episode after having seen the extended clips on breakfast tv. I think we lose something when this happens - and also, I guess, when you get to know the actors and actresses too well. (This morning there was the actor who plays the Dalek's voice. Surely a little unecessary?) There's also been a bit of rewriting of history with the new doctor - with Christopher Eccleston's original series almost forgotten, as a result of David Tennant's success. Yet Eccleston was in many ways a more interesting doctor, a deeper character. I could see both shows going on for years, so infallible is the premise in both, and so "flexible" is the science fiction apparatus. I think there are literary archetypes for Captain Jack and the current Doctor, for instance Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat or Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius. There does seem to be an insatiability for sci-fi type shows; I notice that there are spin off TV series to both Total Recall and The Terminator series for instance. Much as I like such things, I guess I still prefer something original, which is why stories and novels remain so important. I'd never seen "The English Patient" till last weekend, for some reason, and I thought it was very good. The "framing" of the story being what made the film work. Probably what attracted to Minghella about it in the first place. Mind you, both this and The Talented Mr. Ripley are intriguing in their concentration on dysfunctional male emotion. "The English Patient" like "the Kite Runner" had its fair share of melodrama, but these books make good films, however disastrous the male stoicism is that they portray. Remember, Dr. Who and Captain Jack are also in this club.