Monday, June 21, 2010

Worlds Literature Festival 2010

I will be blogging about the Worlds Literature Festival in Norwich all of this week. This year's festival, and associated "literary salon" has a theme of "educating the imagination." Bringing around 40 writers and other literary professionals and academics together from all over the world, with this year a sizable contingent from both South Africa and Australia, it's a unique experience, beloved of writers who are looking for something different from the usual Festival experience. There are a series of public events, as well as the "private" sessions of the salon. For the 3rd year I'll be blogging about the latter, to give a flavour of the discussion and create an observational record, without betraying any of the confidences of the room.

The blog posts will appear on the Writers Centre Norwich website, and I'll include the links to them as they appear rather than replicating them on my own blog. Anyone in or about Norwich there are literary events each night, which are open to the public.

For my own part I'm so pleased to be able to contribute to the event, to meet such a diverse range of writers, and to return to Norwich and UEA, where each visit to date has been an absolute pleasure. This week, we're also priviliged to be visiting Snape Maltings in Aldeburgh, a place, as a Benjamin Britten fan, I've long hoped to visit.

Day One: Imagining "the public good"

Day Two: Scanning for the Imagination

Day Three: The Civic Imagination

and finally...

Three Readings in Norwich

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Events, boy, events

It’s dangerous starting a blog post on a train – as chances are you’ll be cut off in your prime. The “cloud” is fine as a play to store our digital debris, but as a real time replacement for the computing power in our hands it’s not there yet. My first PC, a Dan 486, cost north of a grand, and I wore it into the ground within three years, only the last bit of which I had the internet on. It seemed a remarkable machine compared with the 2nd hand Apricot I’d written my first novel on, if only because it had an integral hard drive. Somehow, this technology, which can now be found at the heart of every tiny USB storage device, seemed to make a remarkable difference to our productivity. You switched off the computer, and, on switching it on again, your work was still there. This was 1994, not some ancient past.

So, a computer once could exist without the internet of course, yet I feel almost incapable of using one now, when it’s not connected. The next generation portable devices – iPad, Streak, ebook reader etc. – all have myriad connectivity options, but we’ve become nodes in a network – or at least, our outer-self, that collaborative, communicative, networked, human interaction that is, outside of hermits and loners, so much what we are, now comes requiring electricity and a connection – not to the world – but to other connections.

In our newly acquired nodal state we are not yet our machines, but we are, I think, visioning ourselves as “lesser”, when we haven’t those machines. The ease in which we write, communicate and publish are new. The act as well as the content of writing used to have cost and meaning. These days, much less so. Our future historians will have a treasure trove of content to take from, but will they able to make much of it? Anyone who works in a large corporation knows that the majority of data, is now machine, not human generated. Everything from our email signatures, to our payslips, happen without as much as a casting eye.

Elsewhere in the world, these luxuries are not yet there, and I sometimes think that like the gatherers in Golding’s “The Inheritors” we might yet be superceded; Visigoths at the gate. Martin Amis, speaking in Paris, questions Britain’s role in the world. He finds it difficult to get involved in politics, as he sees them as low in meaning, representing our diminished standing. In a wide-ranging article in last week’s Guardian, Geoff Dyer talks about how it is non-fiction that is describing our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not fiction writers.

Amis has always been happiest (and wrote better) under some cloud of existential dread or on feeling he is at a revolutionary point in history. For the west, most of us are as connected to such large forces as war and terrorism, as David Foster Wallace predicted a few years ago, in a signature essay, where he sees the future writer getting our inspiration second-hand from television and other media. In the age of professional armies it is no surprise that it is professional (embedded) journalists who might write the definitive first person accounts of stories in foreign places. Besides, a journalist now is no longer a neutral observer, but as likely to be a targeted combatant. The number of dead journalists in Iraq is shocking. If we see the Second World War through Heller, Mailer and Vonnegut, it’s worth recalling that they were returning soldiers from conscript armies. Many novels and poems lie dead and unwritten in the battlefields of Europe.

But isn’t this talk about “big events” a return to the arguments that belittled women’s fiction as being “domestic”, or prefers a history of “great men?” Not to refute Dyer’s article (it is more specific and nuanced than that) but what I know about the Belgian Congo, Trujillo’s Dominican Republic or Irish independence, comes from novels; Kingsolver, Diaz and Barry respectively. However, none of these subjects were ones that mattered to me, or I was part of; it was the writer and writing that made them matter.

Yet the events of our time are important; and they have literary importance; yet a fiction not experienced is less of a draw, somehow, than one where the author has some intimate connection. “Money” and “London Fields” are so good because of Amis’s fascination with both the decadence of the 80s, and it’s apparent counterpoint, impending nuclear disaster. It’s surprising to me that there are so few novels that have looked back at 1968 in any real and meaningful way. It seems that a generational shift happened then, which legitimised a certain kind of radical protest, yet artistic statements looking back on that time seem piecemeal unsatisfactory. Christopher Ecclestone will play John Lennon in a BBC 4 drama this week, Amsterdam Hilton, Yoko One and all. I think it will be an interesting period piece. There are few books (novels or otherwise) that have the power and ambition to follow through actual, real consequences as does Roth’s masterpiece, “American Pastoral.”

The novels of our 21st century crises surely cannot use the Twin Towers as much more than a backdrop, because we weren’t there. I can imagine a contemporary Iraqui-written novel that could do much more. Though whether writing ever flourishes in a warzone is a matter for discussion. I’ve just been reading Coetzee’s “Summertime” and one of it’s aims, I think, is to talk about a period and place – South Africa in the mid-1970s – which, given the momentous history that followed, may seem an irrelevance. Not all of us are there at the great points in history – some of us live our lives in the times in between. I’ve recently written a poem about what I perceive are my generation – now in their early forties – too young for punk, too old for acid house – we watch “24 Hour Party People” vicariously, having not lived close enough to that flame.

I am spending this week amongst writers, listening to writers, talking to writers. Our theme is the “education of the imagination” and I’m pleased that at least one of the sessions covers the political. In a week of an austerity budget; at a time when ideology seems redundant, and political ambition is stilted, I sense that literature clusters around large events because it makes it easier to explain literature’s relevance. Yet it is life, our own place in our shared histories, and the ongoing narrative which in reality absorbs the writer. A writer can be present at the fall of the Berlin Wall, but if he doesn’t understand that wider narrative, what, one wonders, has he been doing?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Home and Away

If you're in Manchester this week I'd recommend the launch of new books from my friends at If P Then Q, in Odder bar, opposite the BBC, listen to and buy new work by Lucy Harvest Clarke, Geoff Huth, Joy as Tiresome Vandalism and Tom Jenks. Tastefully scheduled to offer avant garde poetry solace or celebration following Eng-er-land's final group game against Slovenia. I'm not that hot on Slovenian poetry, so lets hope England play Joe Cole and achieve a little bit better with the rhythm and metaphor than last night against Algeria. Luckily, there's a crack in the (Dr. Who) universe, and any memories of that game have already slipped through it.

However, I've an away fixture this week as I'll be meeting with friends old and new at Writers Centre Norwich's Worlds Literary Festival. I'm looking forward to hearing some fascinating readings and having some great conversations. Like last year, I'm intending to be blogging from the festival, and will link to any posts from here.


No, not a town in Sussex, but a way of conflating two things I wanted to "blog" about. On Wednesday I went to the launch of the Anthony Burgess Foundation. Astonishingly, given these straitened times, we now have a physical presence for the memory of Anthony Burgess in the centre of Manchester. With a cafe, performance space - and behind the scenes, archive and study space - the IABF (the "I" is suitably enough for "International") launched with a recital of some of Burgess's music, and the event was packed. I remember around the turn of the century talking to someone from the English faculty at one of our universities and saying "If I ever did a PhD I'd probably choose someone like Burgess..." and been told, "They wouldn't let you, they don't rate him." Thankfully that attitude has changed, and a lot is to do with the foundation being there to promote his memory, and, as importantly, the interest in him from abroad. A linguist, a polymath, Burgess may have had Manchester roots, but he was truly a global citizen as at home in Italy or New York as in England. Seeing shelves full of his many, many books, you get a genuine sense of a writer with an "oeuvre." That we use the French word for "a body of work" says it all really.  The new space will be having a range of events on over the next few months, and I'm sure I'll be mentioning them when they happen.

The absurd farrago when Ruth Padel jockeyed for position to become "Oxford Professor of Poetry" last year, was put into absolute perspective yesterday when Geoffrey Hill was voted into the post. Wikipedia says "In 1950 he was admitted to Keble College, Oxford to read English, where he published his first poems in 1952"... and pretty much ever since he's been a powerful presence in English poetry, again, renowned outside of his country. One wonders how on earth it took so long? The Guardian got out of it's Russell Brand worshipping hubris to actually have a lead article in G2 on "what is poetry for?"  A reprint of Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading might have done a better job, but there were interesting comments from George Szirtes and Don Paterson, even if the overall tone of the article reduced to that "page v. performance, commercial v obscure" set of cliches that bedevills English poetry.

But looking for the links to the article, I also saw the sad news that the great Portugeuse poet, and Nobel Laureate, Jose Saramago, has passed away. A sad day for European letters.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

At Chets

Last night I had a lovely evening at Cheetham's music school in the centre of Manchester. It was the first time I'd been there, and the reading was in the old part of the building, a beautiful stone hall, surrounded by cloisters. It's a few years since I've seen Simon Armitage read. He's still got that 80s indie band haircut, and a warm, if downbeat tone to his voice; poetry remaining one of the few parts of society that is decidedly "unspun." Looking at the poems on the page of his new collection, "Seeing Stars", they appear to be almost prose poems, long dramatic monologues. He wrote many of these whilst working on his translation of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", and having had to follow the formal rules in the latter, was looking for a poetry without rules as a counterpoint. Yet hearing him read, they're not so much of a departure to the poems that made him famous. If his poetry has always been engaging through it's sense of anecdote and observation, the skills that have made his poetry stand out, are the muscularity of his language, and the slightly surreal take on the world that he's always pulled out of even the most mundane situations. In the new poems, the surrealism has reached new heights, and there's plenty of absurd juxtapositions that can recalls a poet like John Ashbery. It seems unlikely that Armitage has been reading Ashbery, however, his absurdities seem to be far more English in tone - perhaps that strand of absurdist comedy that you goes from Lewis Carroll through Monty Python to Vic and Bob. The poems are full of little joys, as Armitage's keen eye for contemporary life is heightened by his willingness to avoid the merely everyday, and after reading the first line of one poem, he stops, looks up, says "this book is full of great first lines", and reads us a few. When he reads a poem about picking up Dennis Bergkamp (the footballer who notoriously wouldn't fly to European games), it begins a little like a pub anecdote ("I had that Dennis Bergkamp in the back of my cab once" you can imagine someone saying), but ends with an absurd litany of other Dennis's that he has driven around., ending with Dennis Thatcher, and a pointed remark about the devastation that Margaret Thatcher delivered to South Yorkshire.

There's not such a wide difference between these new poems and the ones that Armitage jumped on the scene with all those years ago - and he reads another football poem, from an early book, as if to emphasise the connection. Armitage sometimes seemed a lone voice from a generation that was otherwise not being published, now, of course, there are many poets younger than him, who have reached some sort of prominence - yet his example, a willingness to see in pop culture the very "stuff" of poetry remains refreshing. I had to smile when one of the poems mentions a Microdisney concert - a deliberately absurd choice, for Microdisney (my 3rd favourite band of the time behind the Cocteau Twins and the Smiths) remain forgotten, a connoisseurs choice.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Armitage Week

Well, it certainly seems that this week is Simon Armitage week. Awarded a CBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, he seems a little young for a poet to be receiving it. Surely his best poetry should be long behind him, and he's now being honoured for his services to, I don't know, younger poets, railway stations, animal charities etc. Not seen the citation, but imagine it's his highly imaginative and commendable work with underprivileged groups in society that has elevated him so soon; and, in the age old question of whether or not you should accept such an honour, it surely helps if you are trying to drum up more public funding/bring poetry into institutions where it is absent.

Though I don't know Armitage personally, I imagine that this is far from being the most important thing on his mind this week, as he'll be reading from his new collection "Seeing Stars" at Chetham's in Manchester on Tuesday night. A free event, open for all, it's an imaginative choice of venue, and though I've now got four distinct things on that evening, the Armitage/Chets combination will hopefully swing it and I'll make it along. If Armitage's poetry has for some time been straying from its observational roots, the new collection sees him in entirely new trajectories of prose poetry, that looks as if he's bringing his various mixed media experiments into his mainstream poetry. Of all contemporary poets, he's always seemed most attuned to the various methods that both Hughes and Auden kept their core writing fresh.

There's a World Cup on, of course, more of which later, I think, as the pre-tournament hype (excessive) is now morphing into the first round hype. England v USA drawing may well be perfectly acceptable for both sides in the long run; yet so feverish is the fever pitch round England these days, that God only knows which new levels of hysteria it will have to uncover if we actually reach or go beyond the expectations (quarter final.)

The week's other literary event is the launch of the Anthony Burgess Foundation, which has moved to a brand new premises near Oxford Road, providing, particularly at the time that Central Library has closed, a valuable new venue for literary and related events in the city. Having had the pleasure of going to the Portico Library a few weeks ago, and hearing that the refurbishment of Gaskell house on Plymouth Grove is coming along nicely, I'm getting a welcome reintroduction to the city's most venerable buildings. Perhaps the coming "age of austerity" is focusing minds on past successes. This is one kind of nostalgia I'm happy to embrace.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

High Noon

A writer likes to be remembered, recalled, I'm sure. Twice in the last week the name Jeff Noon has cropped up. "Where is he?" "I loved Vurt". "Where's the great contemporary Manchester novel? What about Jeff Noon?"

Back in the day, City Life (RIP) released two short story supplements (here and here) of the best writers in Manchester, with a couple of newcomers to add spice. I was one of the newcomers, but amongst the more established writers was Jeff Noon. In that post-acid house post-Trainspotting era he came up with some superior cyberpunk SF dystopias - "Vurt", "Pollen" and "Automated Alice" - that were bestsellers, but also had a bit of northern urban grit. His cyberspace was very centred on streets and districts of South Manchester, like some warped literary episode of "Cracker." Not since "North and South" had someone made Manchester such a strong character in a novel.

For personal reasons, I'm assuming, Noon went down to live in Brighton - which is probably as devastating a statement on Manchester as any: the city can't keep it's best sons (and daughters - two women I know are moving even now). Whilst contemporaries of his like Dave Haslam remain embedded in the Manchester scene, such as it is, Noon has disappeared from our consciousness. The "web" - which he was an early writerly conversant with - is almost silent on his latest works. After four well-received, best selling books, there was a sense of diminishing returns. Noon without Manchester didn't seem right, and the books disappeared as well - perhaps never quite as successful outside of Manchester as they were in. 2001's "Needle in the Groove" is the last I remember in the shops and an Amazon search shows his books mostly out of print - copies available online from anything from 1p to over £100. His work became increasingly experimental, and his audience presumably evaporated with it. A web-based collaboration, 217 Babel Street, is the only near contemporary work - giving a sense he's still writing.

"Trainspotting" and the books that came in its wake, including anthologies like "Disco Biscuits" were always more hyped than was applicable, but looking back I wonder if Noon, Blincoe et al (and remember that Manchester's Sarah Champion edited "Disco Biscuits") were as close as Manchester has ever got to creating a literature to match its impeccable music scene. "Vurt" was published by Manchester start up press "Ringpull" that aimed to be a commercial success, and for a while succeeded. If it was all a bit seat of the pants it was at least consistent with the city's ethos.

Where, a friend asked, is Jeff Noon now? I can't remember when he was last reading in the city. Like bands playing their classic album live, I get the feeling he'd be very welcome now, whatever he chose to read. Come back Jeff Noon, we miss you.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Paradox of Poetry

There seems a paradox to being a poet; to writing poetry. For though it is a perfectly malleable form, it's also not capable of doing everything - or at least not everything well. The paradox is there in prose as well, but you can get "poetic prose" that can be as breathtaking as anything in the best poem. Poetry, it seems, is an art of abstraction, yet - again, paradoxically - it aims to be precise in a way that other forms aren't. I don't, I think, write poetry to document the quotidian but to find a response to something that can't be said out loud, or  in a purely linear way.

Yet, in many ways, writing poetry, which I've always done - since seven or eight years old - has other functions as well. It's an outlet for instant emotion; it's a way of capturing sadness - and elation - in a state of permanence, rather than losing those emotions to memory; it's about a certain musicality of words, that prose can achieve, but is better when it does not. It used to be said that poetry was a young man (or woman)'s game - but I'm not sure that can be true these days, if it ever was. Indeed, though the "stuff of life" with which you fill a novel can accumulate over the years, the sheer bravado of the longer form seems more difficult to fit in with life. Poetry, for me now, seems better turned to express more complex emotions, deal with less everyday moments. It is also, perhaps, easier to do, because it only needs to be done when the muse calls - or rather I can put it aside, and not write a poem for a week or a month or more, and it won't feel wrong to have done that.

Larkin wrote more prose when he was younger - fictional prose in the novels "Jill" and a "Girl in Winter", as well as the other stuff. Larkin slowed down his poetry production during the last decade of his life to virtually nothing. Thomas Hardy stopped writing novels after "Jude the Obscure" and began publishing the poetry he'd written throughout his life. Poet-bloggers like George Szirtes and Katy Evans-Bush write reams of words every week, though make it clear that the small poetry triumphs are the real work.

I'm stymied in writing prose fiction at the moment somehow - as if the language of prose has somehow grown tired and old in my hands. It seems that I can't now think above the language that I use everyday, and create an imaginative prose. I'm sure the internet is somehow to blame, and the endless words we have to write for "work speak." Having always had a disdain for journalists-turned-writers, I'm wondering if I'm a writer-turned-journalist. Poetry, on the other hand, is untainted. I can still hear a different tone when I begin a poem, and, when it's finished, marvel somewhat at it's mysteries.