Monday, June 27, 2011

The Administration of Poetry

The worst thing about my job is the endless administration and bureaucracy it entails. You come to learn that it will never all be done, that all bureaucratic systems have their own inbuilt tendency to multiply. All you can ever do is mitigate it, say enough is enough.

Having a day off after an overload of necessary administration over the last two weeks, I feel I've earned a bit of time to get back to being creative. So, here I am, looking through the fifty or so poems I've written in the last year and a half, wondering which work, which don't, which need more work, which don't. And you know what? I've spent several hours this morning on the administration of poetry. I've been a bit slack on some things recently, but have mostly typed up my handwritten poems as I've gone along; thank God for that. But you can't revise poetry on the screen, so my printer's been spewing out pages for most of the morning, and then I had a pleasant hour, reading through, and putting them into 3 piles: almost there; those worth returning to; and those probably not. Its the first time I've done this ordering since last year putting "Playing Solitaire for Money" together, and the experience of doing that has helped here. Poems need to find friends, rather than stand alone - whether that's form or subject.

Then, what am I going to do with these poems? I kind of stopped sending out randomly to magazines quite a while ago; though there are certain magazines I'd love to get published in. So, I've done what Kirsty Maccoll apperently did in choosing the tracklisting for "The Joshua Tree", put them in order of my favourites. I needed a dozen or so - there's a couple of poetry competitions with deadlines next week (Bridport Prize and Lightship poetry competition) and though I've never even got shortlisted for a poetry competition I thought it worth choosing a poem for each - then there's two of my favourite magazines, one online, one offline, and I've sent a batch to each of those.

It's not that the other poems in the pile aren't worth sending off, but they're perhaps requiring a bit more TLC. Noticeably, a lot of the poems I've been happiest with are 2010's batch, rather than 2011's. Takes a while you see. So, it's mid-afternoon and apart from a brief coffee with an old colleague in Didsbury's ever pleasant Art of Tea, and a brief scavenge through the charity shops, all I've done today is the Administration of Poetry. Stamps. SAEs. Online payment systems. Hole punching. Printing. Ring binding. A satisfying day off, but in some ways, something of a Busman's holiday.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

U2: They May be Wankers, but they're OUR Wankers

U2 played Glastonbury last night, to two different controversies. The first being that because U2's tax affairs are now in the Netherlands, Bono is a "debt denier", not paying his fair whack. Given that he's not a British citizen, I'm not sure that its any of our business anyway (Irish Uncut rather than UK Uncut, if such a thing exists might have a view.) Bono, who lectures the world on debt, is being lectured himself. Fair enough. The second controversy is that they shouldn't be at Glastonbury - that they are an out-of-date rock behemoth.

Its mostly the second of these that has me writing a blog post. Its always seemed to be musically the most conservative of festivals (the main reason that I've only been the once.) The "ironic" Sunday night act (Tom Jones when I went in the mid-90s), a selection of big name headliners, hip indie bands relegated to 2nd, 3rd or 4th stage; and black music almost invisible (except when they make a big fuss that isn't - i.e. Jay Z), its amazing it still has any reputation for music at all. That is has, is because of that collective experience of 50,000 people in a field celebrated in Pulp's "Sorted for E's and Whizz", and, nowadays, supplemented by a healthy BBC audience. Glastonbury's headliners are big news. Yet whereas Coldplay, Radiohead and Primal Scream appear to be Glastonbury regulars, U2, like the Cure, (and Morrissey, who also appeared last night) come from an earlier era. The Glastonbury of the 80s was still a hippy leftover as much as a cultural icon. U2 are, as well, the "biggest rock band in the world" TM. The one thing that Glastonbury has never really done much of is basic, all out rock music. I'm wondering whether, in a world where the rock band has become an actual rather than metaphorical dinosaur, it was this as much as anything that caused my twitter stream to be full of anti-U2 ranting last night (even as they kept watching!)

I don't mind that at all, but culturally its fascinating. The anodyne reformed boyband Take That can wow millions with a spectacular show, below average songs, and an enormous sense of good will, despite never having, as far as I can recall, ever expressing an opinion about anything other than partying, having a good time and er... making shed loads of money, whilst U2 get pilloried. Somehow we still care about U2, and when we see and hear the unrepentant Bono in trademark shades and World of Leather 2-piece, his still taut band hanging behind him looking more like his roadies than his bandmates, we're angry about something inarticulate about ourselves. For if U2 are wankers, they are most definitely OUR wankers; that's those of us in our forties and early fifties.

I first heard U2 in the 5th year at school. I knew the name and had heard "I will follow" (that soulful/soulless early single) on Peel, whilst preferring the more adventurous music of the Cure, Teardrop Explodes, Echo and the Bunnymen and New Order. I don't think anyone had these overly serious, tune-light young men from Dublin as inheritors of the term "biggest band in the world." So whereas better frontmen died (Ian Curtis) or lost it (Ian McCullough) and better bands split (The Smiths, Bauhaus) or became irrelevant (The Bunnymen, Psychedelic Furs). U2, in 1983, were about to raise the bar. Their third album "War" impressed the knuckleheaded at my school. Anthems were probably going to go down well with a generation heading for the dole or the infantry (as happened in my school.) Amongst these guys, (and it was always guys at that point) U2 were second only to the mighty Alarm... "New Years Day" and "Sunday, Bloody, Sunday" though songs that I was tired of from the very first time I heard them, I now listen to with a certain wry nostalgia. "How long will we sing this song?" they asked rhetorically, perhaps knowing the answer was going to be "for a very long time." And, in the dire years of sixth form discos, towny nightclubs and even ironic student nights that followed over the next 3-4 years, the only rock records you'd often hear in the "student" section of a club night were "Pride (in the name of love)" and Simple Minds' "Don't you forget about me."

U2 spent a lot of time in the US, and the "Under a Bloody Sky" mini-album was a gateway drug to the band. I've never seen them, partly because they've always been massive. If The Smiths can rightly be called "our Beatles" then U2 are surely "our Rolling Stones". Yet if they never had that band's late 60s originality, and were always more in the pay of Christ than the Devil, they have tried to remain relevant in a way that Jagger and co. long gave up on. "The Joshua Tree", their 5th album, catapulted them to true greatness and it still seems a remarkable record, channelling their love of America and creating not just a spiritual record, but an enormous bestseller. It was the first album where U2 actually wrote songs, rather than sang statements. There are few covers of U2 songs from their previous 4 albums, their are endless versions of the songs like "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking for" and "One" that followed.

U2, never my favourite band at school, were never my favourite band at college, and I only even heard "The Joshua Tree" because Richard from the hockey club used to play it incessantly. Over the long summer, I realised I was missing it, and bought the CD. And its been like that ever since, I'm an accidental U2 fan. Hearing a great track out of context ("Even Better than the Real Thing", "One", "The Fly", "Vertigo") and finding myself with another of their CDs, or, more recently picking up "The Unforgettable Fire" cheaply and wondering why I never bought it at the time? U2 are the rock band for people who don't much like rock bands. They've occasionally tried to be cerebral - the brilliant Eno/Berlin-inspired triple of "Achtung Baby", "Zooropa" and "Passengers: Original Soundtracks" - in a way that clearly inspired both Radiohead (in their leap sideways from "Ok Computer" to "Kid A") and Coldplay (in hiring Eno to revamp a tired brand after "X & Y") and even Oasis (the next rock band to make it big with non-rock fans, though only in Europe.)

I'm not sure that even rabid U2 fans (and I've never actually met one, though they probably exist)are full of joy at the news of a new album coming out; though there's always a track or two worth saving. When U2 are good, they are often very good. There's hardly a modern rock track this century as potent as "Vertigo" or a modern ballad as genuinely poignant as Bono's song to his dying father, "Sometimes You Can't Make it on Your Own." The heart-on-sleeve passion that can seem embarassing occasionally gets smiled on by the rock and roll Gods.

In an age of spectacle performances - whether the bloated and tune-free Muse, the empty Lady Gaga, or the all-inclusive Take That - U2 have remained the spectacle-band to see, with their endless touring being frequently seen as the biggest, and biggest grossing tour on the planet. Yet, at Glastonbury last night, despite a phone call in to the International Space Station, the set was pared down. At the heart of it was a pretty simplistic rock and roll band. They were never the best, the most sophisticated, or the most original, but they often had the best songs, they've stayed together - the four of them - in a way that we'd all wished the Smiths or the Roses had done, and at the heart of it is the visceral simplicity that makes the best rock and roll the soundtrack to our lives. All those people watching on TV last night, and slagging off Bono and the band on Twitter, are actually doing so because U2 have always been there for us - a somewhat awkward soundtrack to our lives; coming to the fore in drunken dancefloor moments ("New Years Day") or at times of emotion in our life ("One"). I tend to play them at Christmas, something about their mix of melancholy and spirituality, or the snow in their videos.

When you have the mediocre sound du jour of Mumford and Sons (aka Brian and Micheal) "triumphing" earlier in the evening, Bono and band have something of the uncle at a wedding about them. Neither Lauren Laverne or Zane Lowe, usually so full of froth, knew what to say, this wasn't Tinchy Stryder after all. The Edge still plays guitar like he's just learnt his first riff, and thinks "this will do"; Bono still hasn't learnt to laugh at himself - at least not on stage - in the way that Morrissey, on earlier in the evening has done, but in 1985 Morrissey had a much better band - the last dozen years he's put up with a group of pub musicians. I found myself watching, but mostly listening last night. And lapping up the U2ness of it all, from the leather trousers, to the snippets of "Yellow" (surely U2 have never wrote a song as bad as that?) and "Jerusalem", to the phonecall (stolen from the band's iconic Zoo TV tours of the late 80s) to an astronaut on the International Space Station. There were plenty of things for non-U2 fans to turn over for, but the "oh my God" nature of the tweets increased as time went on. They've always been there in our lives, and they've never been hip, never been a cult band. They are U2. And so are we. They may be wankers, but they're OUR wankers.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Manchester Book Market

FRI 17 & SAT 18 JUNE
St Ann's Square. 10am-5.30pm. Both Days.

The popular Manchester Independent Book Market returns to St Ann’s Square for its fourth outing, offering book lovers the chance to sample new titles by the UK’s most exciting independent presses.
In a climate where major corporate publishing is becoming all the more conservative – banking on celebrity memoirs and novelty titles - the UK's independent publishing sector is leading the way in producing intelligent, original and challenging books and magazines.
The North of England in particular boasts some of the UK’s most innovative publishers of novels, poetry, short stories, and non-fiction, and the Manchester Independent Book Market brings them all to your doorstep. This year's market will feature over 30 publishers including Peepal Tree, Route, Comma, Crocus/Commonword, Dreamcatcher, Flapjack, Nightjar, Satchel/Suitcase, Thanatos Books, Hidden Gem, and many others.
Situated in the bustling St Ann’s Square, just off Deansgate, the market’s a great place to browse, grab a coffee, listen to live readings from a selection of talented performance poets and authors, and find the perfect gift for the book lover in your life.
It’s also a great opportunity for aspiring writers to network, and make face-to-face contact with representatives from the North’s independent publishers.
There’ll be live readings on Friday 17th and Saturday 18th June, from 12pm-5pm.
More information to follow.


Dominic Berry
Steven Garside
Tony Walsh aka Longfella
Gordon Zola
Mike Duff
Copland Smith
John Darwin
Maria Roberts
Peter Wild
Eleanor Rees

2 - 3.30pm
Peepal Tree showcase compere by Adam Lowe
Seni Seneviratne
Nii Parkes
Desiree Reynolds
Simon Murray
Angela Barry
Sabeen Hussein
Baba Israel
Tim Lees
Conor Alwood
John McAuliffe

4 - 5pm
Marvin Cheeseman
Max Seymour
Claire Massey
Zahid Hussain
Alison Littlewood
Bill Rogers
Steph Pike
Ade Jackson


12 - 1.30pm
Penultimate feat. Martin Stannage, Ben Mellor, Ali Gadima and others
Anna Tuck
Mark Mace Smith
Anna Percy
Chris Jam
Helen Clare
Conrad Williams
Chris Woods
Adrian Slatcher

2 - 3.30pm Flap Jack showcase
Jackie Hagan
Dave Viney
Tony Curry
Fergus Evans
Dermot Glennon
Gerry Potter
Annie Clarkson
Rod Tame
Rosie Lugosi

4 - 5pm
Michelle Green
Anne Caldwell
Emma Jane Unsworth
Nabila Jameel
Zoe Lambert
Amanda Milligan

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Lets Not Talk About Sex

Something's been niggling me over the last couple of weeks regarding "gender and writing." Firstly, why am I even interested in this "old chestnut" again? It's come around again, though. Silly old Naipaul thinks no women are worth reading, easily offended Bidisha gets her calculator out and adds up the X and Y chromosomes of recent literary prizes; the Guardian runs a "guess which gender" game and in the midst of it all, there's another Orange Prize winner.

Nothing sees opinions solidify so quickly into camps as this one, it seems. It was the same a few weeks ago when Philip Roth won the "international" Booker to much chagrin from Virago founder Carmen Callil. Yet, what have we learnt over the last week or so? That we only discuss the issue when the Orange Prize is on the horizon? That Bidisha's got a point (as always) but its so predictable as to be ignorable? That V.S. Naipaul hates everything?

The original Orange came about for a very valid reason; the all-male shortlist for the 1991 Booker list. Its notable that Bidisha no longer includes the Booker in her list of Prizes that doesn't recognise women, after all 3 of the last 5 winners were female, even if only one of those years had a majority of women on the shortlist. I'm not sure what one can say about prizes - other than that the "Orange" is a good thing. Its not as if it takes all the air out of the literary system, allowing no men a look in. It seems to me that the Orange, by virtue of its internationalism (it admits American women, which Booker doesn't), has done a good job. Its the only British prize that a writer of Barbara Kingsolver's calibre, for instance, will be mentioned in - surely a service to the British reading public?

What has concerned me about these various discussions of women writers, male winners, is that the arguments seem to no longer hold water. I haven't the stats to hand, but aren't more books bought by women? Aren't more novels now published by women writers? Weren't there more women than male poets in "Identity Parade?" Don't girls do better at school? To criticise Roth or Heaney or even, god forbid, Naipaul for being male seems to be attacking the wrong targets. None of those formidable figures have slipped from their perch yet; but though I only like the first of these, its their writing not their gender that has kept them there. Are there are any female poets of Heaney's generation that we equally revere? Perhaps not, but then he was always the "famous" one; but go on a generation - we have a very popular poet laureate, who probably sells more tickets to more readings than any of her male peers. We have a female editor at Poetry Review. And, if we are looking for a list of British contemporary writers who might appear to have staying power, its surely as likely to include Nicola Barker, A.L. Kennedy, Ali Smith and Sarah Waters as David Mitchell, Tom McCarthy and Hani Kunzru.

In other words, are we choosing our arguments selectively? I certainly don't envisage - or want - an "all male" prize to rival the Booker, but if a random male finds himself at a random railway station looking for a book, he may look in vain, unless he's got a particularly liking for Wilbur Smith or Chris Ryan. The rest of the book jackets are aimed at the female traveller, even if the books themselves aren't. For a variety of reasons, the book trade has increased, rather than decreased, the likelihood that a man will only read male authors. Us literary types, particularly those of us brought up in the egalitarian 80s, are as likely to be picking up the new Atwood as the new Amis. A "good male read" award might be a better idea - but if it does, then like a Labour party safe seat, a female quota might be advisable.

Is it true that women writers only write about certain "female" subjects? There's a bias, certainly, towards inward narratives and domestic dramas, but then again there isn't - depends where you look. I think its just that men rarely write about these things; or if they do, its freighted with intellectual concerns or billed as a Bildungsroman, or, as in the hospital scenes in McEwan's "Atonement", as much concerned with the mechanical as the human. And women also write about conflict and wars, whether its the Congo in Kingsolver's "The Poisonwood Bible" or Leningrad in Helen Dunmore's "The Seige."

The book - whether novel or poetry - is always in "crisis", but there plenty of new writers. Last night I went to a talk by the American artist Judy Chicago, who has just written a book about Frida Kahlo, entitled "Face to Face", where she looks at the whole of Kahlo's life and work, but with the emphasis on the latter. It was a fascinating talk, and the book is lavish. Despite only having an oeuvre of around 140 paintings, many of the ones shown were new to the audience. For Chicago, this unwillingness to look at the "whole work" of a female artist is detrimental. She herself suffers from having one work, "The Dinner Party", revered above all others. An interesting problem for any artist; but she makes the point that with artists from the past, if we know so little of their work, then chances are that little of the work will have been preserved, or collected. Many of the pieces that were exhibited in Manchester Art Gallery's "Angels of Anarchy" surrealist women artists, were from private collections. Chicago also pointed out that for women artists to move on, and to not keep repeating the same ideas or images, they need to know the lineage of women artists that may not be part of the canon.

It was this last idea that stuck with me. "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it," we say, knowingly, about politics, but surely it is also true of art? The drug novels of the late 20th century that came in the wake of "Trainspotting" seemed to be unaware of a rich history, and added little to it. (Welsh's book, in contrast, was well aware of a lineage of Scottish writers, using Scottish idiom and dialect.) There's a very real sense, that because the overriding narrative remains patriarchal, that even those "gains" that have been made in entering women writers into the canon may again be lost. We are lucky, in other words, that Lessing and Atwood and Drabble and others are still writing.Chicago's audience was a mix of those who knew her work well, and those who didn't. The audience was, predominantly female; perhaps the audience was predominantly male when Amis was discussing Larkin? The rediscovered women writers of Virago's green-spined list now seem to be in every charity shop. The appetite for those books, those writers, which was clearly there thirty years ago, now seems on the wane. The many women writers who have been published over the last 30 years or more, some, I'm sure, have long gone out of print, or have stopped writing.

The market for novels is increasingly a female market, and its no surprise that writers such as Kate Atkinson or Suzannah Dunn have moved from general fiction to more marketable genres, such as crime or historical novels. Male writers have always done this, even if sometimes under different names. A writer of my age, of either sex, could not, I think, ignore female writing. Angela Carter, Kathy Acker, Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood are more acute influences on me than David Lodge or William Boyd. But I think what Chicago said, and what Bidisha hints at, is that it is not just the gender of our contemporary writers or readers that we need to consider, but the gender-bias of the culture. It was, as I say, impossible to ignore female writing in the 80s, just as it was impossible to ignore gender politics. It formed me, it formed my peers. Whether it had the same trickle down effect on people who had not been to university is harder to say. The majority of the city's women were enjoying the spectacle of the 5-man Take That last night, not a talk by one woman artist about another. The men may well have been at home looking after the children last night, which in itself would be some kind of triumph.

It seems to me that the "dog whistle" gender politics makes headlines but it not helpful. Wise feminists realised that their struggle was part and parcel with the class struggle, whilst more than aware of feminism being an achilles heal for an often male-dominated labour movement. Contemporary thinkers need to be wary of playing to a gender bias which will always find an audience, whilst ignoring the larger power games that are defining our contemporary world.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

I write, therefore...

My friend, the novelist Fiona Campbell, invited me over to Liverpool in the week to speak to the creative writing group she's running. They were half way through a ten week course, and she'd asked me along to talk about getting published, and in particular, how social media can be useful for writers. Its easy to forget that although many writers have taken to the web like a duck to water, its not always an obvious fit. Everyone was on email, but few had read many blogs, or thought about using the many literary resources of the web. Our open system can sometimes still seem like a closed shop.

Its always nice to talk to people who are just starting out on their writing journey, if only because it also brings back echoes of your own experience. But a couple of the questions were particularly acute. "When did you know you were a writer?" asked one, and "how do you keep going, with a day job?" The first question made me stop for a second. "Very early on," I said. I'd always written, but looking back I probably felt I was serious about it whilst I was university. I remember writing a story that I was particular proud of, the subject was serious, and so was the execution, and I liked it enough to painstakingly write out a good copy of it, which I gave a friend to read. It made me think about what "validates" you as a writer. It's not as simple as "I write, therefore I am a writer." There have been several stages of validation. Yes, the first time I had a poem published, yes, when my unpublished novel was shortlisted for the Lichfield Prize, yes, when I got on the MA at Manchester, and yes, when my Salt book came out. But actually, those external validations are far less important than the internal ones.

And this led me on to the second question - keeping going, when I've got a busy day job. For me, its always been the work, and the validation is the validation you get from a piece of work well achieved, or completed. I look back on old work and don't regret that it wasn't better; rather I'm often amazed by the amount of energy that went into it. I might know more about what I'm doing now, and things might seem "easier" in some ways, but in reality, it was always hard, and I was always willing to put the work in to finish the work. The sparseness of my published CV, makes me keener than ever that the work that is published is stuff I'm proud of. And, though keeping going when you have a demanding job is quite hard, I've always worked, I've always written, so it doesn't seem unusual. In the list of enemies of promise, it's not the worst.


That demanding job has been driving out everything else this last week, so I only vaguely noticed the furore about V.S. Naipaul's views on women writers. He's the one "great" writer who has always puzzled me. I can hardly remember, and certainly didn't much enjoy, the one book I read by him, "A House for Mr. Biswas", and all I really know about him is his apparently disagreeable personality. Is he really worth the fuss? Saying that Jane Austen has a "sentimental sense of the world" is such a misreading of that arch social satirist that its almost worth a blog post of its own.


This week ahead has even more cultural delights: Social Media Cafe Manchester on Tuesday; The Other Room on Wednesday; new artists responding to Anthony Burgess on Thursday; a new exhibition by Hilary Jack, an artist we published in Lamport Court, also on Thursday and a lecture/book reading by Judy Chicago on that brilliant artist Frida Kahlo on Friday.