Sunday, January 29, 2012

Editing and the Zeitgeist

On the back of reading the Spender biography, I was fascinated by this trawl through 100 years of Poetry Magazine where the writer has looked for forgotten gems amongst the voices of the day. It's a humbling experience - for how many of us writing poetry today would hope to get a poem in Poetry and haven't?, yet at the same time, history shows that the poetry of a time fades into a certain sameyness.

Sameyness comes to mind when reading this intrigueing article about the mystery of poetry editing. For those who have a sneaking suspicion that mainstream British poetry is a club, where any existing member can apply the black ball to a new entrant, it offers a sense of poetry style decided on high. The success of Rachel Boast's Picador debut is suddenly explained as not a bright new female poet bursting on the scene, but one held back as a male editor, Paterson "honed the book with her for a number of years." It's an impression that I doubt Paterson wanted to give. After all, Paterson, a poet I like a lot, is quoted as saying "there have been notorious instances in the last 50 years of poets forging whole lists in their own image, and failing to notice,” offers an only partial commitment that Picador, Cape and others aren't doing exactly this.

It's a fascinating article, however, for poetry is something that surely can benefit from another ear, but, as any regular reader of poetry magazines or anthologies will tell you - there's definitely (as implied in the Poetry article above) a contemporary style that can sometimes drift into an orthodoxy which can exclude. Having Robertson as an arbiter of British poetry might seem a good idea if you share his tastes - but if not? Well...

What concerns me is that there's a lot of luck in finding a poetic mentor, whether a friend, another poet or an editor/publisher. You need someone who is sympathetic to your ideas (which may well be very different than theirs), where there is mutual liking and respect, and ideally where they can provide a different instrumentation to your familiar tune. Is this mentor more like a record producer? A Martin Hannett to Joy Division shaping the sound, or an Eno to U2 and Coldplay adding a warmth and nuance that their bombastic shapes would otherwise deafen out? And, if poetry is so dependent on finding that (senior) figure then what about those poets who are yet to find one? What rings truer is Robertson's role in shaping a poet's disparate material into a book; for modern publishing expects first collections of twice the length or more than in the past, and good poets aren't necessarily prolific ones.

Worth a read, but it raises as many questions as it answers.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Performance Prose

Enjoyed the launch of Socrates Adams' debut novel, "Everything's Fine", at Blackwells Manchester last night. They've now got a P.A. and are planning many more events during 2012; just like a bookshop ought! A surely unintentionally all-male line-up (amazing how quick this starts happening again, when you don't realise it) gave us Chris Killen, author of "The Bird Room", Joe Stretch author of "Friction" and a 3rd reader, whose name, I'm sorry, didn't catch. I never quite made it to the popular "No Point in Not Being Friends" events where this crowd cut their performing teeth, but there was a larger audience along at Blackwells than I've seen for Booker Prize winners. Great to see young Manchester-based writers getting their books out there, and winning an appreciative audience.

Its a while since I read prose live, but in the distant past (1999!) I set up a one-off night in a bar called "Wrote for Luck" where myself, Lee Rourke and his friend Doug read from our "works in progress." Performance prose needs to have some of the immediacy of performance poetry to really work - and last night's readers were primarily funny, first person and in the present tense; only Joe Stretch's work in progress moving from that template. I remember going to see Mark Powell read in the early 00s in Islington at a regular night that had DBC Pierre on the following week (this was just before "Vernon God Little" won the Booker) and it did seem that prose was the new rock 'n' roll.

What was pleasing about last night was that nascent performance pieces have led to the more elongated work that is a novel. There's an art to reading from a novel, and Howard Jacobsen once told an anecdote about reading at the Buxton literary festival and when being asked by Roy Hattersley whether he was going to read from his new book was told "don't, you'll sell more that way." Hopefully, Socrates sold a few books last night - its the 2nd book from Transmission Print, another elegant new Northern press to sit alongside Hidden Gem - and it was good to hear from the other works-in-progress. My only caveat was, that the first person, present tense, which works so well in performance, can become a bit samey after a while, however different the readers and stories are. And I was wondering at what point this became a favoured fictional mode, for writers, readers, and also publishers? Just a thought...

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

We don't still read Spender, do we?

I have just read David Leeming's 1999 biography of Stephen Spender, "A Life in Modernism." Spender, forever associated with Auden and Isherwood in our image of the 1930s had a presence throughtout the 20th century, like a literary Zelig. Leeming's book is fast paced and gossipy and in parts reads like Fitzgerald's description of a Gatsby party, a litany of the rich, famnous, fashionable and infamous. Born as late as 1909 he knew so many, and outlived them all, so that when he passed away in his 80s, by then Sir Stephen Spender, he was the last man standing. Spender's always seemed to me one of those literary names you read about but don't read, and in many ways the book is the story of that. A poet who was more engaged with being a critic, a commentator and a literary acolyte. In Leeming's account, everyone was not just an acquaintance but a close friend, and one is left with the sense that he had a genius for friendship - and not just writers, he dines with Henry Moore and Lucien Freud, is close to Stravinsky, and meets politicians. Man of letters perhaps - but a very modern man of media too. Yet underpinning it all is his bisexuality, his close relationship with his Oxford peers, and the ever-present freedom of his trust fund.

"Money, sex and poetry" could have been the subtitle but to be honest, coming to Spender with some scepticism, I came away liking him alot. He was a heart on the sleeve poet; a leftwinger whose dabbling with communism was always aware of its darker side; and - it seems - a friend to most of the 20th century's notable writers. His best work was written in the 1930s by this account,and he was overlooked or outgrew various awards as life went on. In this sympathetic account he knows that he should have spent more time writing his poetry. that feathering his intellectual nest, and if theres a modern day equivalent would it be a publisher like
Micheal Schmidt or a media figure like Clive James? The poetry, it seems, has hardly lasted - yet the criticism, in essay after essay alluded to here, sounds like its worth rereading. He didn't just have one literary icon, Eliot, but two, with his contemporary Auden - and it is poetry that he kept returning to, even though he wrote copious prose, literary criticism, novels and a well received autobiography. As a literary activist he was involved with PEN and Index on Censorship, and as an editor with both Horizon and Encounter.

His life seems utterly full of incident - his homosexuality at Oxford and in Weimar Germany returned to throughout his life as a husband (twice) and father of 2 children. Much later in the USA he would be in love with a much younger man, whom we only find referred to as B. If modernism remains more than a literary movement but something of the mind, then Spender seems one of its key analyst - yet his own poetry neither found its way into the Oxford Book of English Verse or lists of the great modernist writers. Extracted here his poems seem interesting and emotive but without the intellectual purity of Pound, Auden or Eliot. He was too much the romantic, and that didn't fit with the times. Spender's solipsism is of the heart-on-sleeve kind, whereas a different kind, Auden's apparent indifference to the world that was collapsing around them in the 30s, 40s and 50s, was needed to truly chronicle the age. Spender instead is spinning off to Spain to help rescue his ex-lover; or taking another young writer under his wing.

We don't still read Spender it appears - and his poetry, that mattered most to him, became incidental throughout an active literary life. The books kept coming however, and his industry and wanderlust seem somehow connected to his bisexuality, and his constant need for young male companions, whether intimate or not. Yet the scenes with his children and wife seem generally touching. A bit like the younger Bruce Chatwin, an understanding wife seemed vital to this gregarious soul's ability to inhabit 20th century literary life so fully.

More poignantly, as the book ends, and Spender's last years seem to be made up partly of writing elegies for the departed, we see, perhaps more than we realise, what a specific time in literature was taken up by 20th century modernism. It - rather than fascism or communism - was the ideology that both consumed and finally destroyed these writers. The second world war and what came after killed the sense of the 'modern' even as a free-er less ideologically complex generation - of beats, confessionals and others - continued the project in some other way. Modernism as an elitist game played by the Bloomsbury set can sometimes seem appallingly redundant, but reading of Spender's part in it, and the artistic risks that were not only taken, but supported, one can only admire the extent of the project. The world that came after - angry young men, Mailers and Vidals, Heaneys and Larkins seems far less complex, and far less convincing in its artistic ideology.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Poems in Oxfam

A late Sunday afternoon trip to Oxfam in Didsbury and the shop is obviously benefitting from a few New Year clearouts. Someone literary has obviously been clearing the shelves, as there was a whole shelf of new poetry books as well as literary biographies and criticism. Saddest of all, a row of self-published books "by the author." I wonder if they'll find a home?

Amongst the poetry there were plenty of vaguely familiar names from presses like Shearsman, Carcanet and Bloodaxe, and maybe there's a poet or two in there that I'd enjoy if I found the time to browse, yet even though most of these books were published in the last decade or so, they felt like books from the past somehow; as each year there seems - despite some of the anthologists' assertions to the contrary - more poets than ever. All these "life's works" ending up here; and though its probably the same for novels - it seemed sadder somehow. I didn't escape myself, as the anthology "Reactions 3" edited by Esther Morgan, was there as well, with a couple of my poems in. I'll be interested to see if it sells over the coming weeks!

Though poetry publication is nowhere near as prolific as fiction, all those books make you think. For £50 I could probably have cleared the shelf but I feel, rather than having a great collection of contemporary books, I'd have a pile of poetic flotsam and jetsom; with a few gems between the mundane or the mediocre. I did find one little gem even today, the late Andrew Waterhouse's Windhover press pamphlet from 1998. A 99p find that I'll cherish even though it's author is no longer with us.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

New Music for 2012

Part of my "creative bootcamp" saw me recording 3 new songs (plus a remix) for a first of a projected "single a month" for 2012, which just so happens to be 30 years from when I first started recording music!

You can listen to the first E.P. or download it for a £1 from here.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

The old west should be a fertile ground for novelists, it is, after all a somewhat uncharted history - a pre-history in many ways before official history gets written. Hollywood inevitably realised this a long time ago. Yet though there's a healthy store of genre Westerns,its not often that you'll find a Western up for a literary prize.

Patrick DeWitt's Booker shortlisted "The Sisters Brothers" is a first person picaresque as two killer brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters (hence the somewhat awkward title), begin their latest job for their employer, the shadowy "Commodore." As they are killers their job is a simple one, to go to San Francisco to kill a man called Herman Kermit Warm. Along the way, in the tradition of the picaresque, they encounter odd characters, find themselves in various scrapes and incidents. A heady mix of "Candide" and "As I Lay Dying" would give you a good idea of what the trip is like. Our narrator, Eli, is no Pangloss though, rather he sees this as the worst of possible worlds, where good things are unlikely to happen, money comes and goes, and the killing goes on, as inevitable as any other job. That he and his brother are good at it - the cold-blooded Charlie being adept at whipping up the temper of the milder Eli to make them a formidable killing team. Only now and then, when they mention who they are, do we realise that the Sisters Brothers are notorious across the land. It is this contrast between their bloody profession and Eli's underplayed narrating, which makes the novel such a comic gem. He may be a reluctant killer, but he doesn't doubt his calling. Instead, as they head to their destination, with the Commodore promoting his brother to lead man, and his new horse, Tub, a sorry specimen, Eli begins to come to a new consciousness about his life. Along the way he removes himself from his brother's drinking and whoring to speak to a woman or two, takes advice on dental hygiene from a dentist he meets along the way and begins to think of a better life.

Yet this is no moral tale. DeWitt's west is a scabrous one, with the Californian gold rush in the background as the symbol of man's greed and venality. There are no cowboys in this tale, and only a few sorry indians, yet we get a good sense of the febrile world of 1851, with the speed of change being accelerated as thousands head west. It is a story of stories, and so used are we to the modern novel's self-absorbed narrative, that it takes a while to appreciate these stop offs and digressions. Even in the last part of the novel, where they have found their prey, there is time for another campfire where Warm tells them his own sorry story. The beauty of the book though is Eli's telling of it. He's a winningly amoral narrator, and him and his brother's affection for each other is touching. Also, this is becoming their last job, as the reality of their life as hired assassins comes to bear,first on Eli, and later his brother.

In a review in the Guardian, Jane Smiley is utterly puzzled by the novel, and seems somewhat horrified by its casual violence. Perhaps that's not surprising as her bloodless books are almost the opposite of the carefree romp you find here. Yet it's surprising, amongst the welter of good reviews for this year's Booker list to find this negative one for what, to me, is by far the best of the bunch I've read so far.

Eli's voice is pitch perfect throughout, a growling, lightly accented Boswell, chronicling with humour and a growing self-awareness their travels and travails. Of the four first person narratives I've read so far from the 2011 Booker shortlist this book is not only by far the funniest, but also the only one that I'd recommend to friends; for as hackneyed as the picaresque might be as a form, this hardly matters when DeWitt gives us a new double act worthy of Vladimir and Estragon or Pangloss and Candide. Though his characters and situations are all grotesques, the writing throughout is superb, and there's a moral tale underpinning the violence that would be worthy of Thornton Wilder. A book that has no designs on the reader other than to entertain, the book is nonetheless much more than just an entertainment.