Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Eastern Thoughts

A few days back from Norwich and the richness of the week's experience, the new acquaintances made, the new voices heard: all of this are yet to be properly processed.

In some ways, because we were talking about "the creative writer" we were able to talk and think concurrently about the two obsessions of any writer, which are, I think, both the work, and its reception. We all know that poetry collections (and academic monographs) number their readers in the hundreds, but first (and later) novels as well might be no more "successful."

The chimera of a "writing career" is that the writing may lay unread, or under-read.

I recalled going to my old tutor's house and seeing the many editions of his books, with boxes of unsold copies piled up in the bedroom. Yet, I didn't think of this as being a sad thing at all, but a recognition of the writer as an artisan, a shopkeeper, a cottage industry.

There were more than a few writers in Norwich last week who had something of the travelling tinker about them, moving from town to town with their collection of magic potions (in this case, slim volumes) ready to be sold. Yet, writers are also bashful, and I wish I'd been less reticent in asking to see what books people had under their magic capes.

The Indian writers mentioned that Amazon won't deliver to India, and I wondered whether the Book Depository might? With Abebooks also now part of the Amazonian forest, the need for independent bookshops seemed more important than ever.

Yet, each country has different problems. If the Indian writer finds it hard to get books delivered, the American writer finds their country indifferent to exporting their culture. Perhaps American mainstream culture exports itself - but I was shocked in the years after 9/11 how little America seemed interested in promoting the more positive side of its country; of which culture is surely a large part. There is no American Institute in Manchester alongside the cultural outposts of Germany, France and Spain. That brief period when American Studies was the subject du jour at university, now seems long gone. American books - those beautifully produced, often austere editions - are not so easy to find here in the UK.

Norwich is vying to be England's first UNESCO city of literature, and I wish it well. Where else could take that role? London is too vast and doesn't need any other vain boasts, but literature's other centres aren't the industrial towns (though Manchester boasts de Quincey, Burgess, Gaskell, and even a visit from Borges to see de Quincey's house), but small towns with a writer or two of (great) note; Stratford, Haworth, Lichfield, Why not Norwich then For at least it takes literature as seriously as it deserves. In an era of frippery and short termism, the slow burn of the book's writing and reputation makes for much warmer nights.

Giles Foden, introducing the Norwich bid, spoke of the need for a literary magazine in the city, as something that was missing that should be there. Though there's "The Rialto" at Ely, the disappearance of Pretext and Reactions, once of the UEA, seems remiss. The literary magazine of note is rarely a long-lived animal. Icarus would make a good name for a literary magazine, as they should always fly too close to the sun.

In the gardens of Somerleyton Hall we meandered through the manicured maze. It seemed an appropriate metaphor for poetry. I think writers like puzzles, labyrinths, halls of mirrors and being lost in the wood. We have to keep a little mystery for ourselves, not just serve it all up for our readers.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Reflections on Creative Writing

I've been writing for another blog, this week, at New Writing Worlds 09 festival at the UEA in Norwich. There was a 3 day salon with over 40 writers from over the world, as well as a significant number of readings in the city and on campus, much informal discussion and connections made, and on Thursday night, the launch of Norwich's campaign to become the 4th UNESCO city of literature.

My reflections on the salon are linked to below :-

Day 1
Writers and the Labyrinth

Day 2
Writing for Failing Markets

Day 3
Not Just a Different Language

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Poetry and Death

My aunt is in hospital seriously ill tonight in New South Wales, and I got an email from her husband, my uncle, asking me to get in touch with my parents who weren't easily contactable from Australia. She's been in a nursing home for a while, but has taken a turn for the worse. I'm hoping, for all their sakes, that she recovers. I last saw her many years ago, but she's a great woman.

Marjorie was a vociferous reader, though I doubt she's been able to read much these last few years, and so I think she'd appreciate that I was in Norwich at the Writing Festival there these last few days. I've had a wonderful week, soaking up readings by a range of excellent poets and fiction writers. I've been touched by the playful humour of my contemporary, the Chinese writer/film maker Zhu Wen, and the generosity of spirit of a wide range of poets, fiction writers and academics from elsewhere in the world. I'm sure I'll give them a fuller mention in the coming weeks.

And then, as we were in the day-glo Union bar, we heard the news that Michael Jackson had died, aged 50. He was due to play an unprecedented number of nights at the O2 in a few weeks, a series of gigs I always found it hard to believe he'd be able to complete from a standing start, but for him to die just before that happened is beyond anyone's worst imaginings. He's been there all my life of course, and all most of our lives, which is why, I think, despite the rumours and accusations of his private live (and clearly there's been something wrong with his relationships with his young friends, its just only that we'll never really know the truth of that), he was still so cherished. Add to that the remarkable longevity of his late 70s/early 80s music in memory and in the charts and its not too wrong to put his early death up there with Elvis, Lennon and Cobain. We'll know more details soon enough, I guess, but in the mean time, I'm sure the tabloids are devastated because the soap opera is over, his fans are devastated because they won't ever see him again, and I'm sad because I believe that he was one of the true greats, and they don't come along that often.

A sad coda to a lovely week, and yet poetry is no stranger to death and illness. Jackson's death, as with my aunt's hospitalisation gives a dark coda to the week. I'll sleep now, see what the morning brings.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Beginning Conversations

I'm hopefully going to blogging a little about this years New Writing Worlds on Writers' Centre Norwich's own blog, but have a few thoughts I wanted to put down here. Every year since it began, a wide range of internationally based writers - 18 countries this year, I think was said - are invited to Norwich for what is, essentially, an extended literary conversation; a mixture of shared salon, private interchanges and public readings. It's refreshing after being at so many conferences where everyone is tapping and twittering away, to find that the best interaction here is to listen. The digital interventions can come afterwards. This year, the salon's theme is creative writing - but despite taking place at the home of the UK's first creative writing course, UEA, it doesn't feel at all insular. I've noticed recently how many arts and cultural institutions are having to deal with how the "art" is exploding out from the venue; the same, slower, but meaningfully, is happening with the kind of discourse and practice that you find on a creative writing course. Here at UEA, the discipline was always embedded, within the English department, but I know that's not common everywhere. I wonder what a 21st century liberal arts department (it seems a better term than humanities) might really look like? In creative disciplines, like writing, the short, sharp intervention of an M.A. is, I think, not so vital as the opening of doors and pathways that the course might provide. Here's where social media and the creative writing degree can have some exchange, I think - the "people ecology" that is being fostered by these connections between writers at UEA this week, are not dissimilar to what happens elsewhere. It might be that the transmission mechanism's are necessarily email or older formats, rather than twitter, or instant messaging, but the connections are still there.

For me, the real privilege is not so much the discussion, interesting as it is, but the beginning of the conversation, and that, of course, brings us back to the work. Many of the writers here this week are also reading. I particularly enjoyed the poems of Priya Sarukkai-Chabria and Rukmini Nair last night, two Indian writers writing and reading in English. These weren't translations but originals, and the translation, if there is one, needs to take placein the poets' minds, translating their culture into a language that has its own historical weight.

I was reminded, during this morning's discussion about whether or not creative writing could be taught - a necessary enough jumping off point - of the piece that was written for the Times Higher during my M.A. at Manchester in 1998, with writer Lee Rourke erroneously referred to as a former electrician. I like how in the accompanying profiles our ages are all given - makes me feel very old.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Giant Bunnies and Mancunian Bloggers

I'm sat looking out on the green campus of UEA. Last year the place was plagued with giant rabbits like some experiment had gone wrong in the University's Biology department. It wasn't just the profusion, but the size. Clearly there's something good in the East Anglian grass. I'm sure I'll find them again this year, when I get a chance to look round the rolling campus.

But I'm also struck by how the Manchester lit community is decamped to Norwich this week. As well as myself, there's John McAuliffe, from the University of Manchester's Writing School, and blogger-novelists Jen Ashworth and Chris Killen. We don't actually know each other, though the latter two I must have seen at last years' Manchester Blog Awards - Mancunian-based writers seeming to be always taking a lead in terms of their blogging; perhaps the distance from the capital requiring a web-based presence to mitigate not being able to attend the same literary bashes as your London-based peers. It will be interesting to meet them all properly, as this year's theme at New Writing Worlds is "Creative Writing", and where "online" fits into that is clearly of some importance. Last year's event led to a few creative thoughts, including the essay "Writing Catastrophe" that was published online at Horizon Review earlier in the year. I imagine that anything I write this year is likely to be looking at the online aspects of creative writing as much as, or more than, any other subject.

Giant bunnies aside.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

My New Noir

What is your ideal audience as a writer? Do you have someone in mind? I always hoped that the guys I was in a band with at 15 would enjoy my writing. Neither of them went to university, but they both read, were intelligent, and knew bullshit when they heard it. A good test that - to have a genuine reader in mind. Skip forward all these years and I've written plenty of stuff that would pass their muster, but plenty of stuff that wouldn't. I can do pretension as much as the next guy. Yet, I'm wondering if, in trying to be a better writer (see the last post I made), I've become a different writer than I started out wanting to be. There's always been a tension, I think, between me writing as a realist, and writing as a fantasist. Graham Greene used to divide his novels into two, referring to some as "entertainments", which tended to mean more action and less Catholicism. There's always been a suspicion of genre writing in this country, whilst its always found an audience. Martin Amis never repeated his lovely little noir experiment, "Night Train," for instance; my favourite McEwan is the cold war pastiche "The Innocent." Its not necessarily his greatest book, but his most realised. And noir, of course, can do "deep" thoughts, it just doesn't make such a big deal about it. Speaking with a friend last night, I talked about the difference between "plot" and "story" - the plot can be something of a framework, one of those archetypes - perhaps something "high concept". The "story" is different - it is why the book matters. You can get an idea for a plot, but you can only write the book when you've identified the story. So, I've had an idea, something from a news item, that's made me think, yeah, that's a good starting point for the plot, but beginning to write something of it yesterday, I'm immediately having to find the story. There is, I recall, not that much difference between me writing some kind of new noir, and writing something more personal. The things that matter in the book are just the same. My reader, my ideal reader is not supposed to tell the difference. Write it well, and that will be enough.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Creative Writing

I'm thinking about creative writing, or will be, in Norwich next week, for New Writing Worlds at the recently renamed Writers' Centre Norwich . Appropriate, really, as my first visit to Norwich in 1997 was an interview at UEA for their M.A. - I eventually studied at Manchester. I've never had the problem that some people have in whether or not you can "teach" writing. After all, it doesn't seem a problem in the visual arts - are there's a world of difference between the student of a Sunday class in watercolours, and the student on a Fine Art degree - or there can be; just as there's a world of difference between the writer of a "Mills & Boon" and the poet struggling with a first collection.

Unlike, painting, where there is much that can be taught as part of the craft, writing is something that we all can do, isn't it? Yet, there's a large part of the population that are functionally illiterate; many who struggle with dyslexia and other conditions; others who write garbage for a living (reports, assessments etc.) and couldn't write a creative thought for love or money; programmers who are "writers" until they're asked to document their work - etc. etc. There's a lovely little essay from Elizabeth Bishop (I think, my copy seems a little elusive) where she tells of her summer job marking the correspondence course outpourings of farmers from Iowa and secretaries from Syracuse. That's the still the target audience for those adverts you see in the Guardian, "make money from writing or your money back." No-one, of course, ever stays the course.

And staying the course is perhaps what any "creative writer" needs to do; whether its getting to the end of the novel they're writing, or finishing (or at least letting go) the poem they've been working on. I don't know if writers make the best creative writing tutors, after all, being generous about someone else's work is a difficult job when you're doing your best to develop your own; yet I do know that writers have given me the best creative writing advice - whether it's Henry James in the "The Art of Fiction" essay that I used for the title of this blog; the letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald; or any other number of kind words, thrown away, or thought about deeply, from those who think deeply about their own art. The best compliment my own writing ever got was when someone (a poet-friend), who'd seen my poetry over a period of about a year said, "you've got better, and people don't do that." Getting better, I feel, is what it's all about.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Poets in Lancaster

I caught the train back to Manchester last night with Segun Lee-French, who was one of the readers at the launch of Flax018 at Lancaster's Storey Institute. We bonded over an unexpected love of early Psychic TV! The room at the Storey was a great venue, where the poets - all 6 of those featured in the anthology - were all given equal billing. It felt like the poems and the poets were prioritised, and, in the relaxed atmosphere of cabaret style seating with a glass of red wine, the audience were able to concentrate on the readings. Unusually, and what is the real USP, is that you can all read the poems from the ebook which is downloadable from their website. Segun's poems concerned his going to Nigeria, and finding, not the African spirituality he'd expected from his family there, but Christians, who were trying to convert him.

He wasn't the only poet to talk about "home" - and what that means - and its probably an unofficial theme of the anthology, called "The Crowd Without", to reflect the poet as outsider - like the bison away from the herd that adorns the attractive cover. I enjoyed all 6 of the poets reading, as they all read very well - though they were all very varied, making the anthology a book for readers, first and foremost. A special word for the precociousness of 20-year old Barnsley born, Lancaster-based student Andrew Macmillan, who read with a confidence like he'd been doing this all his short life. I'd been getting nostalgic about my own English degree at Lancaster which completed 21 years ago, and here was a current 2nd year student. A little humbling!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Ideas, we've had a few

On the one hand you could say we live in an age where the "big ideas" are no more, or, at best, are antediluvian (the rise of fundamentalist religion, for instance); but on the other, there's a culture of ideas being thrown around which can only be a good thing. This week alone there's been a number of conferences, in the North West, and elsewhere; and this afternoon, I was reminded of the ongoing intellectual freight of the country, when I was asked to be an observer at a PhD Viva at MMU. I was at a consultation for Manchester's Cornerhouse on Monday; and one of Cornerhouse's aspiration's is to build on its almost accidental role as a "creative hub." It's long been the unofficial capital of Manchester's literary community, as well as housing art gallery, bookshop and cinema. It's interest to surmise whether it is our art galleries and other cultural venues that are returning to a previous role as "salon". Perhaps the rise of the Universities since the 1960s has isolated cultural thought in the ivory towers - and now ideas are beginning to break out again.

Cornerhouse's "The Art of With" debate the week after next, has another contribution, this time from Tom Fleming, called "Embracing the Desire Lines." Things still aren't "open source", of course, but curated, invited, but I'm imagining that the new Cornerhouse - as a hub for ideas as well as art and film - may well need to think on how it might expand on this. Something like n+1's event/pamphlet series would come to mind. Their pamphlet on "A practical avant garde" is one of the most stimulating things I've read over the last few years - and, key to this, I think, brings the "ideas" culture beyond the big think pieces of Charles Leadbetter, Richard Florida, Malcolm Gladwell and others, and into more specific frameworks. It's why the Social Media Cafe in Manchester exists, as well, of course, to not be too prescriptive or "top down." Open source ideas have to come from the left field; from the audience; and - key to that - the participants need to be able to "curate" the ideas, not merely respond.

And I'm always keen to see art find its own place - I should get to Lancaster next week to see my first Litfest event, the launch of their exciting new Flax edition, "The Crowd Without."

Monday, June 08, 2009

Would Shakespeare have used a Mac or a PC?

My return to blogging is with a question. At Platt Fields yesterday, the humorous jazz-punk combo Mundo Jazz, posed it: "We never ask if Shakespeare used a Mac or a PC." I think it's time we did. Or, it's at least a useful starting point, for a discussion of our greatest writer. Of course, Shakespeare never used either, but neither did the fabled million monkeys with their typewriters. (As Cheeta pointed out in his autobiography, there's been billions of humans, and we still only produced one Shakespeare.)

Shakespeare is both poet, and playwright. His work is for page and stage, and somehow, despite the distance of years, retains an ability to be renewed in a way that even the best of his contemporaries can't. It's remarkable to think that he was writing before the Civil War, perhaps a Catholic under a Protestant Queen. For all his insight into the human condition, it is politics not love, that is his true forte in his plays. The sonnets are wonderful, but elusive, and not the wonder of literature that the plays are. (There are better love poets, in other words.)

Yet Shakespeare was not just genius but collaborator. We know he collaborated on some of the plays, but even when the words are all his, he was an actor's writer, working for and with a particular company, on a punishing timescale.

How would you describe a Mac user? Creative, individualistic, design-focussed? Yes, all of those, and Shakespeare could have used a Mac; but look what else he was, networked, collaborative, an artisan as well as an artist, substance, not style. His work is the work of a man using tools to get the job done, but needing others to be able to quickly read it, change it, amend it, share it. I'm going for Shakespeare as a PC user. An unglamorous tool, it may be, but it's what you do with the tool that matters. (Though I'm betting he's still using Word 2003!)