Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Two Literatures

I sometimes think there are two literatures, becoming ever more distinct; and if they're not quite the oppositional mainstream and avant garde of the past; their divergence does seem to be at least partly about ambition. What it seems is that there is somehow now an "establishment literature" that I never perhaps realised existed in the past. It has, of course, little to do with literature; alot to do with reputation, and perhaps something to do with demographics.

I'm almost surprised to hear there is such a thing as the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, yet apparently it's been awarded most years since 1934. It appears that it's not been awarded for a couple of years so maybe the press coverage of it's award to Don Paterson is a fashionable "reboot" of the award under the new laureate. Looking at the winners since 2000, he looks a little young for what appears to be a bit of a long service award. Nothing wrong with that of course, poets do, of course, grow old. It's a very white, British list the last few years, strangely so, given Commonwealth writers are eligible; though I have a sense that the old "empire" writer, born abroad, and if not educated in England, certainly come of age in literary London, is perhaps not there any more. 

Poetry has been in the news a bit recently - and the new laureate seems at the heart of it all - whether finding room for Ted Hughes in poets corner, the awarding of the inaugural Ted Hughes prize, Paterson's receipt of the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. The Guardian on Saturday made the point that some poets are at the heart of our public life - part of the establishment in other words. I sense its because of the increasing links between poets and the universities. The latter, with their professors of business, logistics and media studies, perhaps realise that having a "professor of poetry" who is also a leading contemporary poet is more than just a useful addition to the English department, but someone who can be easily rolled out for ceremonial occasions and the likes. It is hard to imagine a Ginsberg or an O'Hara (or even an Ashbery or Rich) in that role, but then again, English poetry has always been a little cosier than it's American cousin.

Hughes, by virtue of his old fashioned pursuits, his hunting-and-fishing north country Conservatism (more big "C" than little "c" in Hughes's case, I always think), seems as anomalous as the shy, retiring Hull-based librarian. Perhaps it was Hughes as laureate, with his country kinship with the royals, that makes it seem a little easier for poets to be part of the establishment - though isn't that what an Oxbridge education has always been about, whether you join Monty Python or the Cabinet? I'm minded of Josephine Hart's admirable and popular readings of classic poets by popular actors; she is also, of course, "Lady Saatchi."

Paterson, and Duffy, I imagine, will perhaps smile a little at their engagement with the establishment - and, in their various roles, use it to ensure that it is not just "establishment" poets/poetry that find a voice**. Yet, I do wonder, nonetheless, whether the audience who wants to hear the establishment poet - preferably talking anecdotally, reading something funny, or touching on "classic" subjects such as death and nature - is really anything to do with poetry at all? It is comfortable event art - with a poet being a reasonable second choice if, say, Victoria Wood hasn't toured recently. Though you can imagine difficult subjects (e.g. the Iraq war) being allowable in these contexts, I somehow find it hard to imagine difficult poetry.

If there are two literatures, I don't think we need to think of it now as between the commercial or the literary - the commercial writer will, I imagine, find their way, and either be good enough to retain some literary acclaim (the Robert Harris's, the Nick Hornby's) or they won't particular miss the loss - but between the establishment writer and the outsider. Whereas the outsider would once have been a "beat" writer, with a lifestyle almost guaranteeing a short life, I think the outsider now might be very different - in some ordinary job, certainly outside of the literary department of the university - and probably as likely to be immersed in the city as in the countryside.

More important than that, of course, an outsider literature has to be about literature. I'm personally not very interested in the "established" literature - and even a new Amis or McEwan novel is hardly likely to be any sort of literary rather than social or promotional event these days. I'm not talking about intellectualism, so much, as a mindset. Pinter, for all his connections, remained distnictly non-establishment to his dying day in his writing. Andrew Motion, on the other hand, despite being attracted to the outsider in his biographical work, remains an establishment writer.  Though you might see a crossover occasionally - Alice Oswald winning the inaugural Ted Hughes prize, whilst also being included in "Identity Parade" - it is perhaps because of poetry's innate conservatism; "The Wasteland" has yet to be properly assimilated by the establishment.

Though the Queen Mother was a friend of Ted Hughes, I prefer the famous story about when Eliot read to the royals during World War II.-:

We had this rather lugubrious man in a suit, and he read a poem... I think it was called The Desert. And first the girls [Elizabeth and Margaret] got the giggles and then I did and then even the King.

Poetry has come along way since the greatest poem of the 20th century was seen as being a bit of  giggle by the Royal Family, yet in moving so close to that unchanging establishment, perhaps it runs the risk of travelling in entirely the wrong direction.

(*meant to add that there's an opportunity to see this put into practice, with Carol Ann Duffy hosting a series of nights of poetry and music with guests including Don Paterson and Gillian Clarke; taking place shortly in Manchester.)

Easter Reading

It's a good week when you get something published, and this week's a double good week, as I've a short story published online, and the release of a poetry pamphlet/chapbook."The Ikea in Ashton Can be Seen from Space" is a darkly humorous story, that I'd earmarked to sending to "Rainy City Stories" which places stories and poems on a map of Manchester - and this was the first story I'd written for a while that was so clearly based in a particular place.

New as well, is "Extracts from Levona", from new poetry publishers, Knives, Forks and Spoons Press. I join an illustrious list including names from Manchester's poetry scene and further afield. The pamphlets are all nicely produced with craft paper covers, and "Extracts from Levona" is available direct from the website for £5. It features 4 long "pieces" all written in a similar style, and reproduced in a dot-matrix style font.

"Extracts from Levona" is deliberately written as to be difficult to extract from - but it should appeal to anyone who likes innovative poetry, hybrid forms, and has an interest in a work that deals with the personal, political and technological themes of the early 21st century.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Why all the music sounds the same...

Thanks to Twitter friends, I read with interest this article in the Word from February 2008 on "why all records do sound the same." It's a very detailed piece, but although it does explore some of the technical background to contemporary music-making it explains it very well. I was going to write a piece for this blog on songwriting, but that's already grown into a longer piece - I'll get back to it when I can - but the "sound" of records really interests me.

There seems a point in recorded history where ambition and technology reached a "sweet spot." When Dylan toured Britain and was called "judas" it was the first time that such a massive P.A. had been heard in British halls - so indeed, the sound of this rock band drowning out the words was new - and a foretaste of what was to come; when the Beatles and George Martin headed to Abbey Road to record Sgt. Pepper they created an "eight track" by linking two four track machines together. Ambition, in these cases, was beyond the technology available at the time. Over the next few years that would change and it's not incorrect to say that for the first half of the seventies, ambition, money, talent and the recording environment were all in sync. For the home consumer the "stereo", the quad system, the 8-track, the thick cut vinyl before the oil crisis, allowed replication in the home of the impressive audio engineering feats happening in the studio. FM radio in the US showcase high fidelity records. If you're going to test out a new stereo even today, you can't go far wrong with using "What's Going On", "Innervisions", "Something/Anything" or "Can't Buy a Thrill" as a test recording.

The Word article makes a good distinction between how records were made - a band playing together in an acoustic space - with how they are made today - using the Protools system, and fixing the glitches in the mix and the edit. I'm a fan of progress, and believe that good recordings - whether The White Album, Definitely Maybe or "Beat it" - are not a bad thing. I certainly wonder what "The Smiths" would have sounded like if Rough Trade had paid for a better recording. (The BBC versions on "Hatful of Hollow" have always been preferable in most cases.) Although manipulating that "live band" has been common since the Beatles, tape splicing was an imprecise art, and liable to deterioration. I'm pretty sure that most people would be surprised that even non-electronic bands are ProTooled to death these days, yet it isn't a surprise to me - what is a surprise, or rather, what is sad, is that the "sound" of a record now is not about how good it sounds, or what is right for the music, but how much like other records it sounds.

Anyone who has DJ'd with CDs, vinyl, 7"s and 12"s knows the difficulty of working with different levels of tracks - and many of the early CD remasters were notoriously bad (and rarely "remasters" at all.) What I'd not realised was the importance of LOUD. I'm listening to Red Hot Chilli Pepper's "Californication" now, a record I do rate, and hearing it after reading about the mixing of it in the Word article, I can hear how the songs sound both very "dry" and very "loud." Come to think of it - the singles off this album were jukebox staples around the millennium. A record that could, in many ways, be the last great rock album of the 20th century, is up there and in your face - and mixed that way on purpose. Organic it is not. I remember seeing Oasis live before their first album came out, and they were one of the loudest bands I've ever seen (loud without distortion - which is a distinction) - so the news that their second album was also one of the loudest isn't that surprise. (Though, to be fair, their albums were amongst the first to be CD-generation records - too long for a single vinyl album, not long enough for a double.)

Yet, I also listen to contemporary music and think that regardless of the music and songwriting, there is something in the sound that I don't quite like. Its not about "sonic perfection" a la Steely Dan; as there's something equally appealing about the scratchiness of those early Smiths records, (and lo-fi music ever since); but it's fascinating that the Strokes' "This is it" could be recorded on an old Apple Mac, but then be tarted up in an expensive studio. (Rough Trade have certainly learnt a trick or two over the years.) I'm not sure the Word article gets the whole story. I think there's a whole different thing going on than just making Maroon 5 records sound catchy but innocuous on the radio (a band as mediocre as Maroon 5 need all the help they can get); the ubiquity of modern R&B in particular seems distilled now for the MP3 file, the iPod, the personal stereo. There's a shrillness to modern production which - though undoubtedly done via ProTools and using plugins like AutoTune - has a certain sparseness that one has to, if not admire, accept for what it is. A record like the Black Eyed Peas "Boom boom pow" sounds remarkable everywhere other than the high quality home stereo - only there, when you're perhaps looking for nuance, does a whole album of this stuff pall. Whether its the homegrown Ting Tings, or abominations like Soulja Boy, the song as jingle, the song as ringtone, the song as skippable download is the current currency, like it or not. Any DJ will tell you that some records just don't work - whether its because of their tempo, their production, or their lack of hook - so there's nothing new about all of this...

...what is new is the sense that if a record doesn't sound like this it won't get any headroom. In the past, a new sounding record - think of when "Billie Jean" came out; or "Slide Away", or even "Jack Your Body" - could ride past everything else to the top of the charts. It punched its way out of the radio's mediocrity. Whether you can hear a good v. bad production via Spotify, or on your MP3 player is a moot point. There are certainly songs from the past that will lose much of their quality in that medium. (I found the honesty box download of "In Rainbows" for instance, a disappointment because of hearing it only as an MP3).

I'm an optimist though - technology can always be used for both good and bad purposes. When Kanye West used Autotune so blatantly on "Love Lockdown" in 2008, it blew me away, easily my favourite song of that year. The compression algorithms that can be used so easily by every identikit ProTools user can also be used in different ways. Just as I can find quite a fondness for the big, empty reverb sound of early 80s FM synthesis programmed drums and the DX7, there's something oddly life-affirming about the ultra-dry, ultra-loud sounding "I Gotta Feeling" by Black Eyed Peas - in some ways its taking us back to the days of the mono 7" before George Martin, Brian Wilson and Phil Spector came along and complicated things.... of course I love that complication, as well, but maybe the directness of the current sound du jour, which is, after all, available not just to the big studios but to the little guy with their laptop, may develop into something new and interesting. And, even if it doesn't, a very different sounding record like LoneLady's recent album, "Nerve Up" or Bon Iver's debut album, can sound even more exciting as a result. (I kind of think the interest in these types of records has probably been at least partly because they sound so different than the pap.Please note, Mark Thompson, when next you're listening to commercial radio and radio 6 and saying they're the same "demographic.")

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Rounding up the Poetry News

I don't think, in the dozen or so years thatI've been keeping an eye on the poetry scene, that I've seen it quite as vibrant as now. When I first sent off to a dozen or so subscriptions in the late 90s there was a diversity of publications, that wasn't always as diverse when you went through the pages. The same names came up time and again, serial submitters, I guess. Without much internet information in those days I relied on the Poetry Library on the South Bank to check out magazines that did exist. In the years since magazines have come and gone, and, to their credit, some of those magazines I signed up for back in the day are still ongoing, labours of love.

Poetry has moved to the internet of course, but its great that readings, books and pamphlets are still it's lifeblood. In recent months, the neat little editions from Knives, Forks and Spoons press have been popping up at readings in Manchester, and I'm pleased to say that they've now got a website, where you can read extracts from and buy copies of chapbooks by writers like Neil Campbell, Steven Waling, Scott Thurston and Stephen Emmerson, and, shortly, my good self. Closely linked, though independent of, the work that's been going on at The Other Room, Alec Newman who runs the press, is aiming to quickly develop a wide ranging list of new and innovative work.

The next Other Room is on 7th April at the Old Abbey Inn - so just after Easter. Expect standing room only for Ian Davidson, Zoe Skoulding and Matthew Welton.Skoulding, like Welton is featured in "Identity Parade" (see below), again showing how the pluralism of the current contemporary poetry scene is good thing.  As always expect to find a more diverse poetry bookstall here than in any Waterstones, sure to include publications from Knives, Forks and Spoons, zimZalla, If P then Q and others.

It seems, as well, that the new generation of editor/poet/publishers are getting the hang of this internet thing. Certainly the internet seems the right place for reviews and critical commentary, if not always for the poems themselves, and Hand & Star was launched at the end of last year as an outcrop of the successful Penned in the Margins events/publications; as a review site.

It's interesting that the venerable the Rialto, is now celebrating its quarter century, and has brought in Nathan Hamilton from Eggbox to source poets under 35 for it's anniversary issue. You have a short deadline - till the end of March - but its always a great magazine, and I've felt privileged to be published by them now and then.

There's also interesting news from Salt Publishing with the imminent launch of its own chapbook list, Salt Modern Voices. As Roddy Lumsden makes clear in his introduction to Identity Parade, "nearly half the poets included here are published as part of poetry lists which didn't exist at the beginning of the 1990s" - a sign that the closed lists of more traditional publishers actually mitigates against the development of the art.

But poetry also needs readers; no publisher wants boxes full of unsold (and unsellable) books cluttering up the office or the loft. After yesterday's budget you can probably afford a couple of poetry books for the price of a night out on the cider; and its often reading what you've not been told to read that can have the greatest influence on your own writing, as well as giving you much pleasure, as this fascinating interview with Tom Jenks makes clear in 3AM Magazine.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Needles in the Haystack of British Poetry

"Identity Parade," published by Bloodaxe and edited by Roddy Lumsden is the first comprehensive anthology of new British and Irish poets for 17 years. Firstly, Lumsden and Bloodaxe have done a remarkable job, not just in taking the haystack of contemporary British poetry and pulling out most or all of the needles, but in accepting the pluralism of the contemporary scene as a given. A more minor triumph is that four of the poets I'd have quibbled with, had they not been included, Richard Price, Chris McCabe, Luke Kennard and Matthew Welton are all well-represented. That these are included, shows that Lumsden in particular, has a keen eye for the contemporary scene - it is hard to imagine a Bloodaxe anthology of a decade ago finding room for them (and not just because they are published by Salt and Carcanet.)

In his introduction, Lumsden doesn't talk about the poets, but about the need for a new anthology, the selection criteria and the poetry landscape from which they were pulled. By choosing 85 poets, he runs the risk of too wide a selection, but so nicely laid out is the book, and so generous in its size, that every poet gets a short biography and a reasonable selection of their work. It is up to the reader to pick their favourites, or - given that the poets appear alphabetically - plot their own pathway through a diverse poetic scene. Whether Faber will be ashamed or pleased that "only 3" of the poets debuted on their imprint, would be an interesting subtext, I guess - except that it is Carcanet and Bloodaxe, and more recently Salt and Seren, who have provided the publishing opportunities that the closed lists of more major publishers have rejected. That there are more women then men in the anthology, and from diverse backgrounds, is not a surprise - as Bloodaxe in particular has always been particularly strong in this respect. It's still somewhat surprising to read that "a third" of the poets are in some way, in academia - though given the rise of the "creative writing course" perhaps its not that much of a surprise.

Lumsden's selection rules won't please all - its notable that poets like Armitage and Paterson are excluded, not because of their age, but because they were published too early for inclusion. If this gives us a collection of many minnows and few giants, then I don't think this is a bad thing: there are no overarching geniuses of contemporary poetry, whilst there are clearly a lot of modest, but worthwhile talents. By reflecting what is, and drawing a line under a generation - now in their late forties or early fifties that hardly needs the "bump up" that inclusion would give - Lumsden has created that rare thing, an anthology that is likely to please readers and critics.

My quibbles would be minor ones - I would have liked some selections from Chris McCabe's startling debut as they offer more of a jolt than the ones included (disclaimer: I published some of those early poems in Lamport Court); and there are no long poems included, and few extracts from longer works or sequences. I've only just been looking through the collection, so it will take a while for a "critical review" - i.e. of the poetry itself - but Lumsden doesn't even try to give a critical perspective; preferring to map the landscape, rather than draw conclusions. He speaks of "individual voices" and of a lack of engaging politically engaged poetry, and of there being no dominant figure. He is not wrong, yet there are limits to the anthologist's role when it is purely curatorial. The "missing" more established figures do skew the collection somewhat - and recent poetry prizes have been won by such a wide range of writers, both ones included here, and more established writers - and it does not even try and be an anthology of the most important poems of the last twenty years. It means that a writer like Simon Armitage or Ian Duhig remains poorly served by the existing anthologies - a gap for a companion volume in a year or two, perhaps? What is clear, and where the book is vital, is that for anyone wanting to explore contemporary poetry further, this is a beautifully produced, and generously edited starting point.


I had missed Todd Swift's review of "Identity Parade". It seems a reasonable summation, albeit with a bit more of a poetry world insider's beefs, though it does fall to the inevitable temptation of criticising the collection for being what it "isn't" rather than what it "is."  I guess this is reviewers/bloggers prerogative. And I guess its writers/anthologists prerogative to respond, and Lumsden, intemperately, does. Apparently Swift's review and perhaps more accurately, the somewhat incredible letter that preceded it, caused quite a furore in the small, febrile world of poetry. Luckily, I missed that one.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Things to Do in Didsbury When You're Blind

I'm still recuperating from my eye operation, and everything's going reasonably well, and as expected - it's just that in the hurly burly world we now live in, it seems absurd to be out of the swim of things for a whole month - but that's what they'd said before the operation, and it's looking likely to be that. It's partly because I've still got blurry vision, partly as I'm still going in for regular check ups, and partly because I need to take drops in my eyes every two-three hours. None of which are compatible with your normal life. The internet has been a bit of a lifesaver, particularly as I'm still finding it hard to concentrate for any length of time, and I've not been able to read books.

The improving weather has made a lot of difference as I feel comfortable going out the house without being blown this way and that, or risking a rainstorm. So, I've been watching the world from afar, via Twitter etc. and listening to the radio. The whole media seems designed to get people angry these days. I caught a bit of last night's Question Time in Wythenshawe, and it was noticeable that the audience were sane, considered, and very angry at the political classes, whilst the panel, with the honourable exception of Charles Kennedy, were either insane (David Starkey) or inept (Margaret Beckett). When Starkey referred to 25% of children being "feral" you felt like sectioning him. It was a woman in the audience who very clearly let him know how offensive this comment was. You got the feeling, as we still have this "phoney war" before an election has even been called, that none of the big guns fancied meeting the electorate in Wythenshawe - after all, where's the votes? A Labour stronghold, not a marginal. If there's increasing contempt from the political classes for the electorate (only matched by the bonus culture of banks and chief executives), the anger against Westminster from the audience is palpable. I don't think they've yet realised how raw the wound remains following the expensives scandal and the bank bailout.

If it seems in such circumstances that art is less valid, I'd probably disagree. That, in fact, art adds value at times like these. A visit to an art gallery, watching a film, reading a book - these are inexpensive pleasures - moreover they seem far more "real" than the pantomimes that our 24-hour media spews out. A few years ago, there was a trend to satirise the 24-hour media. This can be in films such as "Natural Born Killers" or"15 Minutes" (well recommended if you haven't seen it) TV shows like "Nathan Barley" or "Brass Eye." It's hard to know where you'd now start. The "plantfood" drug Meow Meow sounds less ridiculous than Chris Morris's infamous "Cake"; and the kidnapping and release of Sahil Saheed from Oldham would seem too far-fetched a script for a soap opera, yet it's real.

For all the hangwringing over BBC's decision to recommend axeing Radio 6, it's more than ever thrown the spotlight on the paucity of good UK-developed drama and comedy on television these days. We excel at lifestyle shows such as Masterchef, yet it seems more by chance than judgement that the licence fee gets paid on something more substantial. Sitting at home watching "Homes Under the Hammer" or whatever it is, you kind of care a bit more than when you're catching a few things on the iPlayer.

The importance of nurturing an independent cultural sector becomes ever more clear. The universities are following the arts council in being subject to cutbacks and one does fear that the smaller, more worthwhile and cerebral cultural projects are likely to be first in line - though the problem of developing an audience for a diverse cultural offering remains critical. Tonight, though I doubt I'll manage to attend, is a farewell celebration to Manchester's Central Library that is closing for refurbishment. The regular literary programme that the library has put on has been a continual small triumph, which has developed a loyal and regular audience for a wide range of local and visiting writers. Tonight's Celebration is likely to be a fantastic evening, and I'd be there if I could.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Not Reading Beckett

I first read Samuel Beckett during my A-levels when, alongside "Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead" and "Hamlet", we studied "Waiting for Godot." I enjoyed it then, though couldn't quite agree with the university friend who, a couple of years later, felt that it was a masterpiece of comedy. (Everything was a masterpiece with him, or not worth bothering with - a portent of meeting Beckett fans ever since...) Most of the texts I studied at school have remained with me as my literary touchstones - "Othello", "Wuthering Heights", the Metaphysical Poets, "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" - but not Godot. Though not adverse to reading great plays, the writer who writes mainly for stage doesn't, outside of Shakespeare, offer me what I want from literature, even if their use of dramatic narrative, and particularly spoken conversation can be highly persuasive.

I don't recall anyone going on then - this was 25 years ago - of Beckett's genius. I was actually surprised to find he'd written novels and poetry, as well as the plays - as these, if not out of print back then, were certainly never mentioned as literary highlights. Yet in the years since, and particularly since the millennium I can't help but notice that Beckett is the go-to guy for a certain literary intellectual. Is it the Joyce connection? The austere seriousness of the work? (With that comic genius thrown in - as if to say, yes, he's bleak, but he's funny bleak). Or is it something else? A certain literary snobbishness about the last high modernist?

I'll  be honest, Beckett interests me, but I'm in no great hurry to read his collected works. He's very quotable of course, and I guess there's a particularly Beckettian landscape that appeals to a certain type of (almost always male) reader. But like "Monty Python", Radiohead's "OK Computer" or the poetry of J.H. Prynne, just been hammered constantly with the certainty of his genius, is not going to get me rushing to Beckett. The little I've read about him, he seems quite a wry, humorous, private character - yet Beckett's fan club is very offputting to the non-acolyte. He seems to appeal to academics, first and foremost, and particularly those academics in other disciplines. He's the imaginative writer that psychologists can admit to liking. Back to Godot, though, and as revolutionary a work as it no doubt was, I feel now that it is - like the stories of Raymond Carver or Pound's Cantos - of it's time, rather than for all time.

Beckett, of course, was still alive when I was studying him, and it seems a particularly late 20th century condition that writers - rather than seeing a dip in reputation after their death, as used to happen - see a revival, as the literary afterlife (letters, biographies, unfinished works, new editions) gears up for frenetic activity.

I hope to get to Beckett at some point - but I stress he isn't a priority - I get the sense that perhaps his world view and his literary style are of little personal or literary interest to me. (The same feeling I had on finally reading Sebald last year). I feel there's an expectation that I should have read him, and, just as importantly, to rate him highly. Yet not all literary models are universal, particularly ones who are so uniquely "themselves" as Beckett clearly was. Recalling Godot, it seems pretty straightforward to me, for all its orginality, as a drama of the post-war European diaspora - distinctly of its place and time. Beckett's genius was to find a suitable form with which to write about this bleak prospect.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Free Translation

I subscribe to Chicago's venerable Poetry magazine. My initial reason was that it was a way into the complex and hard to navigate pathways of American poetry, but it's probably only fitfully good at this task; rather its got more of a world view, which I've found particularly useful. I first read Bolano in translation in Poetry, for instance, and even though I'd not heard of him at the time, was immediately bowled over by his work. Their poetry selection is far from remarkable, but at least it is pluralistic. For instance, in the latest issue, I'm perplexed why they'd give 9 pages to Dorothea Grossman. It's not that the poetry is necessarily bad (though read "Love Poem", which comes close enough), but that it has so little character to it. Yet a few pages on we have some lovely translations of German poet Giselda Kraft, that demand to be re-read.

Unlike our own Poetry Review, which you cannot read online, except for a few extracts, Poetry is online in its entirety, yet I like the slim little volumes that come through the door every month (far more portable for that matter than either PN Review or Poetry Review) enough to continue subscribing to what I could just read free online. There's a fascinating "conversation" between my favourite essayist Adam Kirsch and poet/translator/anthologist Ilya Kaminsky, that makes me want to pick up the latter's Ecco Anthology of International Poetry. The question of whether poetry can be translated is a very good one. But as Kaminsky indicates, both the King James' Version and Chapman's Homer are translations. The conversation seemed an appropriate follow on to some of the conversations we had in Norwich last June, particularly from the English-language Indian writers who were there.

I also found Chen Li's essay on translation particularly fascinating. The poetry examples given are readable by a western reader because of their visual nature, a sort of Taiwanese concrete poetry. Finally, its odd that the first time I should read of Jasmine Donahaye's "Self-portrait as Ruth" is here, in an American magazine, given that she's Welsh-based and published by Cambridge's Salt. On the short extracts given here, and on the Salt website, she seems a remarkably original poet.

And since I'm talking about poetry, it's worth mentioning that there's a launch for a number of new poetry pamphlets from Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, next Tuesday at The Crescent, Salford.  Well worth attending if you've any interested in hearing new and original work.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Time it Takes

One thing that gets increasingly lost in the talk about "creative industries" and the need for individual artists, writers etc. to take other things (such as marketing, promotion) into their own hands is the time it all takes. It's a subject that Malcolm Gladwell talked about in his latest book, "Outliers," talking of the "10,000 hour rule" - a common figure for success in different walks of life from sport to musicianship. I was reminded of this last night watching a repeat of Blues Britannia - where the young guitarists of the British blues boom felt they could only be as good as their heroes if they practiced for 15 or 20 years or more.

That it takes time to be good at something is certainly true; but as important is having the uninterrupted time to work on a particular thing. Whether or not the end result is worth the effort is a matter of conjecture. I saw a documentary about the artist Micheal Landy a few years ago - particularly about his piece "Break Down" where he systematically destroyed all of his possessions. I'm not a fan of Landy's work, though admire his persistence. For me, the problem with it - at least what came across in the documentary - is that he gets a single idea, such as this one, then has to take it through to its conclusion. Whether you like the work or not, probably depends on whether you think the single idea is worth pursuing. I sometimes think that the single idea is better as a thought, not to be taken to its conclusion. Art, of course, since it can offer a certain indulgence, is often the taking through an idea to conclusion. I'm quite fond of some of the YBAs work, but it is this single idea compulsiveness that seems their achilles heel. A work like Fiona Banner's "Hunt for Red October" where she writes, from memory, the whole film on a wall is another example of a bad idea, involving much tedium for the artist in its execution, I guess, taken to conclusion. There's a hairshirt element about this kind of work - a self imposed suffering for your art.

In all of literature perhaps the most obvious example would be James Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake." A novel that dominated the latter part of his life, as his eyes were failing, it is not so much a failed work as a work that failed to find an audience. Perhaps its an idea - a novel where most of the tropes of the traditional are removed - which someone had to write. In this sense, I'd distinguish it from the two YBA examples above, in that here was a "good idea" that, against all common sense, Joyce took to its conclusion. What should we make then of the new edition of it? The book, which took Joyce 17 years to write, took 30 years for Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon to revise according to recent press about it's re-publication. We marvel at the hand drawn books of monk-scholars and can only be glad for their perseverance and dedication - so perhaps we should be as equally grateful to Rose and O'Hanlon. After all there are enough academics in the world beavering away for all of their careers on good and bad ideas, and there is only one "Finnegan's Wake."

In the contemporary world, we don't have monk-scholars, rather we have the millions of man hours that go into video games and now films such as "Avatar." I was watching the much talked about video for Lady Gaga's new single "Telephone" and what strikes you is the amount of work that has gone into what is essentially a vacuous product. "Telephone" is, by some way, the least memorable of the singles that Lady Gaga has released since storming the charts last year and so perhaps the video needed to be the most excessive thing about it. A cynic could say that most of the man hours in this video went into watching "Thelma and Louise" and "Pulp Fiction" a dozen times or so, so signalled are its pop culture references, but maybe Lady Gaga was the sort of teen who put her favourite films on time and again anyway. (One doubts it somehow; she was more likely spending her 10,000 hours professionalising her project.)

Given "the time it takes" for any art - but particularly any good art - it strikes me that the best thing an artist can do is not to become a blogger, or design their own website, or create some other outlets that will help shine a light on their art, but rather to concentrate on the core thing. If there is a role for publishers and film companies and record companies in our user-generated-content world then it must be this: to create the space where the art happens. From anecdotal evidence with people I know, this seems to be happening less and less; rather it is the artist-as-brand that is now as important as anything else - and whether you are Chris Ofili or Ian McEwan or whoever, providing some kind of "access" is now so vital. I know on a smaller, local level, one of the real frustrations is that even where the idea is good, there are often so many barriers to making it happen - usually institutional - that mean it takes a particular type of personality to overcome them. Even though our artists, musicians and writers proliferate these days, we should still have enough common sense to realise that the artist or the creator is the most expensive piece of machinery in the room - the equivalent of the state-of-the-art machine that the hospital or factory has been waiting for; the equivalent of the multi-million pound striker or world beating sprinter; the equivalent of the top scientist or hospital consultant. Around each of these, you want the "prime" thing or person to be working at full capacity for as long as possible - anything and everything that can help that; should be put in place to enable it. I used to like the Guardian on a Saturday with it's "Writer's rooms" - as even if we're not able to have the world devote itself to our every need, we can still try and put as many things in place as we can.

And whether or not it requires Gladwell's 10,000 hours - I think I'd rather be creating something of my own, to the best of my ability, than contributing in some way to something as facile as the new Lady Gaga video, however much fun it might be to watch on YouTube. Recuperating, these last two weeks, what I've realised is that even having time hasn't meant much, when I've not found it too easy to read or write for prolonged periods, or, more than that, put in the intellectual time that creativity needs. All the projects I was working on before my operation have been put on hold, and it will be a while - weeks certainly, but possibly longer - before I can get back to the same place as I was with them.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Thin Line Between Fact and Fiction

 "Creative non fiction is a slippery slope" writes the sub-editor in Tim Garton Ash's piece on the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski, which goes to show that sub-editors rarely seem to have read the piece they're summarising. It's a fascinating piece in that Garton Ash picks apart the different approaches to veracity for non-fiction writers. Kapuscinski, it seems, made things up, misrepresented people and incidents and generally acted like a novelist whilst being lauded for his reportage. Are his works essentially works of elaboration and fiction? or are they acceptable "factions", with a little "colour" added for artistic reasons, and not taking away from their essential truths? Garton Ash places himself in the middle. There is not a "slippery slope" (sub editor take note) but a "vitally important line...that writers of non-fiction should strive never to cross. If we do cross it, we should put a different label on the resulting product."

Garton Ash is a historian, and in terms of history, I'd agree with him. After all, as a witness after the fact, the historian is entirely dependent on his source materials. Not so, the travel writer, the war reporter or the political journalist; particularly in areas of the world where access itself is not easy, where - if you like - the lie is a surer survival mechanism than the truth.

It's only the written word that has to deal with these problems it seems - films and TV dramas can get away with the loosest of disclaimers that "this is a true story", or that "this drama is based on real events, but some of the characters and scenes have been changed for dramatic purposes." Even a fiction, such as David Peace's "The Damned United", comes unstuck through its use of real characters within an inaccurate universe. It looks like a novel, it calls itself a novel, but the novelist got chastised for making things up - not just the scenes that he could never get from his research, but the real events that the story was based on. (He was elastic with his timescales, "for dramatic purposes.") I guess part of the problem is that the book might physically look the same whether its a fiction or a non-fiction.

Yet part of the problem, I think, is that we are no longer in Defoe's world - where his (mostly made up) Journal of the Plague Year pretends to be journalism, and his Robinson Crusoe is presented as if its a real autobiography. One is tempted to say that Defoe got to the New Journalism a couple of hundred years before Tom Wolfe.

And in many ways, it is not the writer who is to blame here. The 24 hour news cycle has reduced print journalism in many ways, with the news only happening when the camera is there.The foreign correspondent is now probably looking for two stories - the short gain of that day's news, but the long gain of the book. Read Robert Fisk for instance and you find autobiography, personal memoir, history, reportage and political analysis all within a few pages. The reader has to take such writing at face value - stripping out any hyperbole of style and ego, and trusting in the eye witness accounts. Over the last twenty years or so, there has been a sense that non-fiction is what matters, far more than fiction. Whilst fiction (particularly British fiction) has retreated into storytelling and the past, non-fiction is what leads the line in each new issue of Granta for instance. You can't quite imagine a major magazine leading, as Life Magazine once did with Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea", with a major work of fiction, yet serialised non-fiction books remain high on the masthead.

What Garton Ash makes clear (and having not read Kapuscinski I must take his word for it) is that in reading Kapuscinski "we keep crossing from the Kenya of fact to the Tanzania of fiction, and back again, but the transition is nowhere explicitly signalled." We are not quite in the unverifiable fictions of Defoe here, but clearly we are somewhere. Kapuscinski died in 2007 so can't now speak for himself, and it seems that it is lesser writers who are now fact-checking his stories, in a much different context than the one in which he lived. Reading his Wikipedia entry he had ten pieces in Granta over the years - and it does seem to me that its partly that market - for a non-footnoted, non-fictional exotica that Granta has always specialised in - that is more to blame than a particular writer. Any editor could have highlighted that "transition" that Garton Ash talks about, or insisted it was clearer - yet we live in a culture that wants the authority of the factual, yet is often unwilling to accept the necessary framework (footnotes, peer review, whatever) around it. Or rather, we lived in that culture. It is hard to imagine that outside of North Korea and Somalia that there are many places in the world where tourist-reportage would now be difficult to undertake; and, moreover, the "open" culture of the internet may not replace the legendary fact checkers of the great American newspapers, but it can put even the verifiable truth into a sort of purgatory of doubtful veracity.

Moreover with 24 hour news cycle and the instant communications of the internet the non-fiction explorer/traveller now makes do with his special contacts in silicon valley or his exclusive access to Google HQ. It seems to me that the type of reportage that was one of the triumphs of 20th century media is unlikely to be repeated in the 21st, whether its because war reporters are now seen as "fair game" or because of the practice of "embedding" with the invading (Western) troops. With an army of armchair internet sleuths ready to fact-check or (since the internet is not in itself a verifiable source) "opinion check" each and every piece of reportage out there perhaps the age of the adventurer-reporter is coming to an end. Instead it is fiction, with, its need to provide a believable (if not verifiable) truth to its readers, which will re-take the moral high ground.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Cultural Senses

A week and two days after my eye operation I've at least another week of heavy drug use, as the hospital makes adjustments to the procedure they undertook. Feeling healthy in myself, but with a red, blurry eye; needing to stay near to home because of the regular eye drops I need; and also needing plenty of rest; the key challenge for week two is going to be boredom. I can't easily read, watch television or use the internet - or rather these are the "eye" activities that tire me out most. I can't go anywhere for long, either. Didsbury, for all of its pleasures, is full of shops, restaurants and bars; it doesn't - unless I get religious - do contemplative spaces. If the weather is nice, like it was on Thursday, then there's some nice parks.

So my cultural senses are on a ration; only the ears get continual stimulation. I've a tottering pile of discs next to the stereo; and I've even been digging out old vinyl favourites. Be careful for what you wish for of course - a couple of weeks recovering after, say, a broken bone, would probably give me plenty of catching-up time on my reading, but I'm pretty sure that the thing I'm least capable of doing this week is picking up "Summertime" or "The Children's Book."  Maybe I'll see if I can read an hour a day of J.G. Ballard's "The Drowned World" for the next SF book club, even though I know full well I won't be able to go along to it. I've found the internet the hardest thing to keep away from; and with good reason; its a 2-way communication space - and with Twitter, live streaming and other such things, a vital "real time" place to "hang out." There's nothing like a couple of weeks of enforced isolation to improve one's understanding of the challenges for anyone is housebound. It's clear that unless I'm into online poker or World of Warcraft, we've still got some way to go into creating a really interactive web. Surely there should be some conversations I could join in? I "attended" a virtual event in Liverpool on Thursday, which was okay, until, "that's it folks, we're off down the pub." This virtual viewer was suddenly left to his own devices.

The one thing that "recovery time" does give you is time to think - and though this can be a bleak time to be doing thinking, I've noticed that because I feel pretty healthy in myself, I've been feeling pretty chipper. Life, for once, is on pause, and I can't do much about it. Rather than cramming a dozen things into each day, I'm spreading them out. The intense concentration required for creativity is a bit beyond me at the moment; this blog post is more than enough challenge for now.