Thursday, July 30, 2009

It's Bookertime!

I've written in the past about how the Booker Prize, despite having different judges each year, does seem to have "phases" - at least in retrospect. Over the last three or four years there's been a definite sense that it is reverting to a middle-brown unsensationalism, perhaps the better for it. As a grand dame of literary prizes it can probably afford a step back from the 80s/90s frontline it sometimes seemed standing on the edge of. Also, as publishing appears ever more conservative, and exciting new names haven't really come zinging out of the traps, the sense of "entitlement" that used to grip the prize, particularly when some name was either included or excluded, is no more. So this year, its business as usual, a longlist of 13 books (a manageable number.) As ever, the books are rarely in the shops, never mind the public consciousness at the time of the longlist launch. Historical fiction is an ever-popular Booker trope and dominates again this year; though the lack of Indian writers this year may just be one of those things. (At Norwich recently Xu Xi had noted how Asian winners of the Booker tended to be first time or early career novelists.)

James Lever's appearance on the list for his faux biography "Me Cheeta" seems a little cheeky one way or another, yes, of course its fiction, but a fiction presented as celeb-biog. It kind of undermines the project to file it under literary fiction rather than biography... Perhaps the most interesting name on the list, outside of the Mantels, Toibins, Coetzees, Byatts was James Scudamore. I recognised the name, and was trying to remember where from. Then I remembered. On leaving Norwich after the Worlds festival I caught the train to London with writer Robin Hemley and he was seeing Scudamore whilst in London and had told me what a good novelist he was. I promised to keep an eye out. Well, promise kept. It seems Scudamore, with his Sao Paulo set second novel "Heliopolis," might be an intriguing dark horse.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Cottage Industry

Writing can be a cottage industry, except it's not particularly industrial, and I've not got a cottage. You can see how it might work, of course. As my friend Elizabeth points out in her little piece on last week's Manchester book market, the writer sometimes doesn't just get to write the book and read the book, but may also end up distributing the book and collecting the money for it. In some ways that can be part of the fun - the cottage part, I guess - but the industry part is more difficult. After all, we all practice division of labour in life; saving time by getting someone else to do things for us that they're better equipped to do.

So, this weekend, with a very rare three day stretch to hand, I've been almost religious about staying cloistered. And what have I done? Worked so hard...done so little! For the simplest of things in the cottage industry can take so long, just to get right. We industrialise for a reason, to be more efficient, mostly. And if I was running a little magazine still, or something similar, I'd be the same - but this weekend's tasks have been catching up with months of neglecting my "literary business". Not the writing, but the "putting out."

I've diligently typed up a few longhand poems; carefully re-read and lightly edited a short story and a non-fiction piece for various competitions; re-formatted the documents according to the particular "rules" of each competition (and wondering whether life was easier when I was surrounded by envelopes, cheques and stamps, rather than online submission procedures?) Finally, I've tried out Feedbooks which Scott Pack had mentioned as a place to get free e-books from for his holiday reading. Maybe, at last, there is an audience for reading fiction on mobile devices? Certainly most of my friends and acquaintances - at least those in the digital realm - have an iPhone or similar. Making it easier to upload in various formats - which is what Feedbooks hopefully does - seems a good option.

So, although "For the Want of a Gas Barbecue" is a couple of years old, it seems the perfect summer reading for a mobile device, being humorous, contemporary, and not too long.

In between this activity I'm reading Helen Carr's excellent group biography of the imagists, "Verse Revolutionaries", and enjoying the cottage industry of literary London 100 years ago. It seems more similar to the present day than the intervening years, somehow...

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Poetry of Middle Age

The poetry of youth is a cliche, of course, as is the poetry of old age, death approaching - "no country for old men." Yet as we live longer, and as our own interests develop, there's surely a desire for a poetry of middle age, of experience, not innocence if you like. I was thinking this whilst reading C.K. Williams' impressive collected poems. Faced with such a large collection I decided to start, not at the beginning, but with his 1999 Pulitzer winner "Repair." These are long, discursive poems, of life lived, of memory, but of experience and knowledge, not of regret. Take "The Poet", where he remembers "Bobby the Poet, though whether he ever was one or not...might be a question," or "King" remembering MLK, and telling a story of American racism through memory of people walking to King's memorial service. What you see is memory used as a powerful device, not as nostalgia, but as a strong tool for explaining the present, through the sharp recall of experience. We need a poetry like this, of middle- or late- age, that gives a perspective that the poetry of the moment can't give and yet is not yet elegiac or resigned. Wonderful stuff. I met, and heard read, Williams last year in Norwich, and having his voice in my head as I read these extended lines, helped immensely - they are masterly, having a spaciousness that never overextends or becomes too languid.

Monday, July 20, 2009

After Things

So Manchester International Festival has officially finished. Comparisons with two years ago are highly positive, it clearly taking on board some of that debut event's failings. Much of the best work this year came out of genuine collaborations with Manchester based cultural institutions, or gained from making the most of the cities venues, whether regular ones or unusual ones (like the Velodrome or the office block for "It Felt Like a Kiss.") It still remains a selective festival - in that its hard to imagine anyone finding the desire, the time, or indeed, the funds to go to its ten signature events. I managed Kraftwerk and "Procession", as I was away for much of the fortnight; but really wished I'd been able to stay around for "It Felt Like a Kiss", Elbow/Halle and the performance art at the Whitworth. Didn't hear anyone say much about Acosta or the Royal Exchange or Durutti Column, and I'm sure that Rufus Wainwright was ok if you like that kind of thing; but all in all, there seemed a definite buzz about the place - helped by there being a buzz on the social media channels - that means that next time, all being well, I'll take two weeks out of my diary to enjoy the whole thing. Of course, other things were going on at the same time, so whether it was an underwhelming Fall gig on Saturday, a fun Social Media Cafe at the BBC, or regular events like the degree show, sideshows like Iain Sinclair at Urbis or the Independent Publishers market in St. Ann's square the city seemed full to bursting with cultural activities. I'm not so convinced that we need the big bang of the Royal Opera House, as the cost - in particular the running costs - seem out of proportion to the benefits, particularly when the city has such a vibrant cultural life as is; yet we do need some more and better, and more diverse public spaces, indoor and outdoor. For perhaps the first time in a long time, I felt Manchester was living up to, and surpassing its ambitions culturally, rather than being a somewhat reluctant advocate. Life of course goes on, and it would be a shame as the summer holidays dawn, if everything dries up in the post-festival mud. There's plenty of art still showing in the city, but probably precious little in the way of music or literature - at least until September comes along. My cultural diary has an empty look for the next few weeks, though there's the August Other Room in a couple of weeks, and Cornershop at Moho next Monday...

Friday, July 17, 2009

If You Are in Manchester This Weekend

The Manchester Book Market returns this weekend. Our typical Manchester rain mitigates against it, but writers like adversity and will be reading to a rainswept audience tomorrow and Sunday afternoon.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Writing about Manchester

Oxygen Books has a series of successful books about various cities, with their City Lit London the latest. It is London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Cambridge and Oxford that come to mind when you think about English Literature's love of the city, not Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool or Manchester. Perhaps the helter-skelter growth of the 19th century Victorian cities saw too fast a rise, and the 20th century, too fast a decline. Ra Page's "City Life Book of Manchester Stories", a decade ago, attempted to get writers associated with the city to write a story about it; and there's been a fair share of poems, novels, and yes, stories that have taken place in contemporary Manchester in the year's since - I'm thinking of Joe Stretch's "Friction", Gwendoline Riley's "Cold Water" and "Sick Notes," and Neil Campbell's "Broken Doll" amongst others. Yet the city hasn't yet seen it's "Augie March." Then there's Dave Haslam's non-fiction history of the city's music, "Manchester, England." I think all of these would find a place in a City-Lit Book of Manchester, if it ever came to pass.

Manchester is written about all the time of course, either in the newspapers (football pages particularly), or through its music or filmic location. Surely, our mythical anthology would have to find room for a Coronation Street script, something from the first series of "Cracker", maybe a few words from "Shameless" and "Cold Feet" (preferably across the page from each other, as glorious contrasts.) Older writers would be well-served of course; I'm not sure how much de Quincey dwelled on his city, but we'd have room for Frederick Engels, and much Mrs. Gaskell, never mind some considerable chunks of Anthony Burgess's 2-volume biography, the only books of his to dwell at length in the city. The classic non-fiction work might find a place, "The Salford Slum," perhaps with David Constantine's poem about the groups of young men from Salford Streets who perished in the First World War.

As "Procession" showed last week, any anthology of Manchester would have to include the words of Mark E. Smith, the Buzzcocks, Joy Division, Morrissey and Shaun Ryder amongst its gems.

There's always a difficulty, of course - is it writing "about" the city or writing "from" the city? An anthologist would surely find room for "Love will tear us apart" even if it doesn't mention a location, as surely as emigres such as Engels and W.G. Sebald. I'm yet to read it, (or listen to it - since that's the version available at the moment), but am looking forward to another visitor to the city's words of wisdom. Writing for the new arts and culture magazine Corridor8, Iain Sinclair is at Urbis next week, reading a piece of psychogeography from walking round the city.

Friday, July 10, 2009

New Writing

Here, there and everywhere the conversation's are the same: about the new. Literature stays quiet. Not only that, our wider writing community, bloggers, journalists, even artists in other fields, have a massive blind-spot with literature. Poetry, in particular is seen as an irrelevance. Why is this? People who would not admit ignorance of media, technology, contemporary art, films, music and politics are happy to admit not only an ignorance of literature, but not even an interest to engage. Yet people are writing, talking, communicating. At what point did literature lose its place in the tent? It seems to come from two directions - firstly, literature never has a problem when its just "books"; Phillip Pullman or Nick Hornby or J.K. Rowling or Carol Ann Duffy, whoever are perceived to be relevant voices on other topics, as long as their own books aren't seen as too difficult. Secondly, because it is the live event, or the immediacy of journalism in the 24-hour news cycle, that rules the contemporary agenda, it is the ability to perform in these places that ensures profile, value. Literature is awkward. Literature is slow. Literature is reflective. Literature is obtuse. Most of all, of course, literature is imaginative, and whether its a poem or story, the "greater truth" of the imaginative is deafened out by the immediacy of non-fiction. I've written before about writers becoming middle-men for cultural life; and it remains a problem. Scott Pack was running a book on which writer would fictionalise Jade Goody's life, a spot on analysis of one particular trope in contemporary fiction; and I've lost track of the "new plays" that are dramatisations of government reports and enquiries.

That said, I can't finish without applauding a particular non-fiction initiative, Lancaster's online Flax books is looking for bloggers to write 1000 words for their next edition, a non-fiction edition.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Seasons to be jolly, and otherwise...

It's festival season in Manchester, yet we've too much else to do. I'm "on tour" with work in Bristol, Cambridge and London over the next couple of weeks, so my Manchester International Festival fun has been reduced to Kraftwerk and Steve Reich, and the Procession. Annoyed to have missed the opening of the exhibition tonight - I always bump into old friends at these things - but hope to get to see it later in the week. Whether I find time (or inclination) to catch the Banksy show in Bristol is another matter. There does seem to be an awful lot going on at the moment - and on the one hand I'm a little gutted that I didn't bag tickets for Halle/Elbow and It Felt Like A Kiss, on the other, realise I'd have probably needed to take a fortnight off. After all, last night was also Manchester's Social Media Cafe - relocated to the sauna-like conditions of the BBC bar. The presentations always seem to mould themselves, so there seemed to be good audiences for all three. I enjoyed hearing about social objects and how they are like the periodic table from local web developer @hereinthehive, and hilarity followed through the crowdsourced little movie put together by Maria Ruban, The Joy of Ceefax, and a game of Ceefax Bingo to match. All good, slightly off-kilter fun; and that's the thing, there's a need for some creative, imaginative spaces in the city...

...which possibly explains why I'm feeling a little gloomily seasonal myself. After a couple of fantastic weeks, I've either reached entertainment burn-out, or just a necessary correction - my biorhythms are clearly a little off, as the last couple of days just been feeling a bit gloomy, and tiny little things have annoyed me out of proportion to their importance. It may just be a natural clearing of the airways after all the stimulation, or perhaps I'm just feeling the distance between the mundane and the sublime, both of which are amply to be found in my life at the moment. I get paid for the former, and pay for the latter - which might be better than the other way round, but still leaves one feeling a little like Leonard Bast. Suffering a little bit of ennui, I think, and though there's good ennui and bad ennui, I'm thinking this is the latter, more "what's the point?" than "I don't know what to do next." Perhaps being in other cities may help me get over this, though I kind of think I could probably do with some solitude, rather than stimuli at the moment. There'll be no let up, though, as I'll be back professional Manchestering for the Fall on the 18th July.

Partly I think its again down to the way that there's so much excitement about "all this digital stuff" but the one area I care about, literature, is hardly thinking about it. Notwithstanding the last posting about flarf and conceptual writing, I think the art form stays as it is; books, stories, poems - these are what writers care about, and everything else is a distraction - no different for me, than for John Donne or George Orwell then. If the key element of the Manchester festival this year has seen art break from its normal environments, and alter somewhat the relationship between performer and audience, then its a truly difficult thing for literature to achieve whilst still remaining primarily literature. I've some ideas about how we could do things differently (more in presentation of work than in the work itself), but not even sure where this would fit...more food for thought.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

What does it mean to be a poet in the internet age?

One of the things I like about America's venerable "Poetry" magazine are the surprises that it throws in now and then - translation issues, for instance - and in this issue, a mini-magazine within the magazine addressing two "new movements" for the 21st century, Flarf & conceptual writing. It's surely part of the role of a national poetry magazine to bring to a wider audience work from the margins.

Having had more than one conversation recently about the lack of web-based writing that actually comes out of the possibilities of the medium, perhaps its not a surprise that Flarf is primarily concerned with that medium. Edited by Kenneth Goldsmith, he introduces the subject by saying that "our immersive digital environment demands new responses from writers. What does it mean to be a poet in the Internet age?" What indeed...

He introduces us to writing that is interested in its own processes, "found poetry", but because of the dynamic nature of the internet, this is the wrong term, its perhaps a poetic equivalent of Eno's "generative music" - a writing that churns and changes with this immersive medium. Though its not all flarf, (using the term to mean spam or similar garbage) as Mel Nichols' charming modern day Whitman poem "I Google Myself" makes clear. Though reading its last lines, "I don't Google anybody else/And when I think about you I Google myself/Ooh, ooh, oo, oo, aah", its almost a mashup between e.e. cummings and long-forgotten Divinyls single "I touch myself." Sharon Mesmer and K. Silem Mohammad's poems are long lost offshoots of Ashbery's "Tennis Court Oath", juxtaposing random words from the internet into what otherwise looks and sounds like a normal poem, whilst in the conceptual pond Goldsmith's own "The Day" takes news articles from the newspaper on 9/11 and gives them a retrospective dread. "TOMORROW. Mainly sunny" reads one, "Islam is a dangerous religion", reads another, quoting a Houellebecq interview.

These things are of course closer to art practice than traditional poetry, but because the web is still a written medium, primarily, there's a nice playfulness with words that keeps them firmly in the poetry camp. Here, I think is the difference with much internet based generative art (thinking of Thomson & Craighead's installations that use live streams to create the content for their work) or indeed with older forms of "concrete" or "visual poetry."

Flarf is fun, and I think its the playfulness in this selection which is great. It's not saying "all other poetry sucks" or creating yet another divide where there's so many already. You can read all these pieces online here.

All of this deserves to be taken seriously, though perhaps not too seriously - there's surely no big agenda round conceptual writing other than as an interesting thing to do; and, surely with the "toolkit" that is the internet, we'd be surprised to find nothing that uses it. A sestina made out of Tweets for instance might be a nice little exercise, but who knows whether Twitter will remain in 5 years or more?
Katy Evans-Bush writes a little about it here, and the great thing about Flarf might be that we've all written it without realising it. And as Steven Waling says in response to the post, it's fine for a little while, but you don't necessarily want to just read this and nothing else.

I wrote quite a lot of generative or conceptual poems around the millennium. One of the most effective can be read here.

The Links Effect

I've updated the sidebar a little to list some other peoples blogs, literary magazines and other sites that are interesting. I don't promise I'll ever keep this up to date - there's plenty of other people's sites who are brilliant resources for finding out about poetry, magazines, publishers etc. and I'll try and add any that do that to my list.

If any of these are unfamiliar to you, have a look, they're good.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Big Gigs and Microscopic Thoughts

I've never been a fan of the large concert, yet, pick and choose, and they can be as good as the smallest gig. In the last week I've been to two large concerts, both one offs; Neil Young in Hyde Park, and Kraftwerk at Manchester Velodrome as part of Manchester International Festival. Such different conceptions of music, of course, but both formed in the fulcrum of late 60s optimism, and coming to age in the anything goes attitude of the seventies music business. For all that industry's excess, it was at least willing to make and put out the records. Interestingly its the electronic futurists Kraftwerk whose back catalogue is nailed to that decade, from 1974's "Autobahn" to 1981's "Computer World" made up 90% of their set last night, whilst Young's seventies gems are joined by others from the 60s, 90s, and even more recently. (The 80s, it seems, was a disaster for just about everyone.) Pointless comparing and contrasting two such different gigs other than proof that you can like two entirely opposite things without fear of contradiction. I liked Neil Young's primal nature, chopping at his guitar like a Canadian woodsman with his axe, through songs like "Fucking up", "Hey Hey My My" and "Mansion on the Hill" as well as his more subtle country songs, kept wondrous by that surprisingly adaptable voice of his. In Hyde Park it rained briefly before support Fleet Foxes came on, but they harmonised away the rain, though, to be fair, their sound got a little lost in the vastness of the place. Far better were Chrissie Hynde's the Pretenders, who made the most of their first on the bill spot. Hyde Park's a civilised location - easy to get too and from.

Last night, at Kraftwerk, the expectation had been high all week. The Steve Reich premiere, played by Bang on a Can All Stars as support, was an interesting prelude. Reich had earlier said in interview that he'd never heard Kraftwerk until he knew he was on the bill with them, which does make one wonder about the world in which he's lived and worked for so long. His piece, around 20 minutes long, will require repeat listens, I think, as it never quite locked into a particular place, or pulled away from its anchorings - yet there was much to admire. If anything it reminded me of the early 70s experiments that Fred Frith, Bill McCormack and others were doing, in some of those EG/Virgin art acts, particularly Matching Mole. (Listen to some of their live releases.) That whole scene was coming from jazz improv, of course, and the idea of a composed piece for a band (as this was) reached a similar location from a different direction. Kraftwerk I've never seen before. They've always seemed more concept than band to me. I've not even listened to them much over the years, whilst appreciating their innovativeness. In a set that spanned those iconic albums, as well as the codas of "Electric Cafe" and "Tour De France Soundtracks", what was fascinating was how they've controlled their image and their vision throughout their career. This could easily be the same man-machine that Lester Bangs wrote about in the late 70s. The re-tooling of their sound means that the songs all had a consistency - yet as I've mentioned, they were mostly recorded in that 7 year period, so we shouldn't be too surprised - and did feel timeless. Kraftwerk, remarkably, have always managed to avoid any of the contemporary cliches of the day. If Reich hadn't been listening to pop music, Kraftwerk, you feel, have stayed away from any electronica that wasn't in their own heads. Only the "Electric Cafe" stuff, from a period when technology had caught up with their vision, sounded thin and dated (as it did, to be honest, when it came out.) The British Cycle team came out onto the Velodrome track during the Tour De France segment; we donned 3D glasses for a sequence of songs beginning with "Numbers" which was more than just a gimmick, became an integral part of the show; and those one-hit-wonders, the robots, came out for their single track, "We are the Robots."

Unlike Hyde Park, the Velodrome is stuck in the middle of nowhere. Our taxi driver - a regular Man City goer didn't even know where it was - and we abandoned taxi to follow the crowds across the Asda car park. The roads around Alan Turing way were gridlocked, and much as the gig itself was great, you had to shake your head at how difficult Manchester makes things for itself. As a start to the Manchester International Festival it was an unalloyed triumph however, which will last long in everyone's memory.

Next week, at least, I'm back down to earth, able to concentrate on more microscopic thoughts. There's the options of Social Media Cafe, The Other Room poetry reading, and a series of readings in Oxfam in Didsbury, as well as the Festival pavilion and much else. Yet, I'm piling up even smaller things that need processing. I've been writing poems with a frequency thats unusual of late, and yet they're all in scribbled manuscript form at the moment - it being the one form of writing I still do longhand.