Saturday, April 28, 2012

Kathleen Jamie

I went along to the Anthony Burgess Foundation last night to see Kathleen Jamie read from her new book of "essays" (her word) "Sightlines." In conversation with Adam O'Riordan (whose quiet approach, more psychiatrist's prompt than interviewers interrogation was entirely appropriate), she read from the book and revealed quite a lot more about her artistic process than is usually the case as such events.

"Sightlines" is a book of essays - some, though not all, about the natural world - but as Jamie pointed out, she doesn't consider herself a nature writer. Indeed, like myself, she finds the tendency of some nature writing to block out the human as annoying. And what do we mean by nature? From the calm iciness of Greenland where she had deliberately gone because she felt she would never get to see an iceberg otherwise to the dual-microscope in the pathology lab peering at cells of removed tissue - this also is nature, darker, less pretty. If there is something missing in her narrative, as O'Riordan teased out, it is people, it is character. She is clearly not travelling alone but they are neither her subject or interest. Perhaps the person seen out of the corner of the eye is another way of adding perspective. If one of the worries of travel writing is that it can be seen as "tourism" perhaps one distinction is that you don't photograph yourself or others in the foreground of the Taj Mahal.  And as she added, she would hate to be written about herself, so those who travel are fleetingly referred to if at all. One point that was made is that for all the "isolation" of remote landscapes, for a writer the time being on their own is often the writing; not the being there.

And for Jamie the companions in these journeys have another function. "I am lucky to have fallen in with a great group of ornithologists and naturalists" she says. Each ornithologist seems to refer in awed terms to someone who is better than them, like there is some God of seeing at the top of the tree they all aspire to. But this wasn't merely a throwaway line, but a way of emphasising that seeing (or hearing) is something we can do all do; that we can all learn to do. The naturalists have encouraged her to look, and to look carefully so that your eyes become accustomed to the normal - which means that when you see something different, in behaviour, in feather colours or whatever - you notice is because of that difference. Not so different to what a certain type of poet does, of course. This "looking" had its reward in the final piece she read, about seeing the gannet's in the sky on an abandoned Scottish island, and realising that they were flying low; that there were other signifiers of a new presence in the landscape. That presence was killer whales, and Jamie and her companion, in a piece read with real drama, rushed to the cliff's edge to see what unfolded.

These ideas of a landscape that is shaped by us, rather than outside of us, reminded me of Simon Schama's classic "Landscape and Memory"; and memory seems to feature strongly in this work as well - so that a piece, a deliberately written piece, about watching a lunar eclipse, is then followed up by something that could have been prosaic. For the next time she "encounters" the moon is from the window of an airplane - and she reminds us that she would never get used to this "wonder" of flight (which the woman across from her, with an eye mask on before the plane has even taken off, is clearly immune to.)

Why write essays at all? She wanted to take that word back from the academy, where such things may well be unreadable - but also, because as a writer who admits to being "useless at plot and character", it is the form of prose that she does feel able to do. Though it is not, of course, any easier than writing poetry - though she'd hoped it might be. Some of these pieces took years. She gives a wonderful analogy of the car maintenance book, the Haynes manual, where you have "exploded diagrams" showing how all the bits of the engine or the exhaust system fit together. These essays are "exploded diagrams" of topics that a poem is maybe the more compacted work - where you can't see the workings. Also, when asked whether she researches the essays, she said (a little disingenously I felt, for someone who has deliberately sat in a pathologist's lab and is naming the techniques and processes methodically), that though she takes a notebook with her, it remains unfillled; she relies on memory and fills in the gaps later - or, more accurately, the essays "soak up" twenty years of reading or experience from the recesses of the brain.

Certainly there were extracts last night that with a different emphasis would have been inseparable from poems, but though the essays use her "poet's tricks" they do seem to be much more than that. If in the early extracts that she read from, there seemed a little too much of that "I am here, I am experiencing" beloved of TV documentaries, her choice of subjects and the emphasis she puts on them seems far more deliberate - responding to deeper subjects (of mortality; of silence; of man's role in the natural world.) I very much look forward to reading the book.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Prose v Poetry

On a recent Facebook thread, there was an interesting debate about "longeurs" in prose. Do people forgive poor writing in prose because its part of a longer work and so matters less?  In a lively debate about the merits or otherwise I ended up standing up (as I often do amongst poets) for prose; or at least my belief that it is exactly what a good novelist attempts to do - write well in every sentence. Despite there being many competent poetry collections out there, the tendency towards bigger books (80 plus poems are not uncommon) makes me find most poetry books overlong. The whole here tends to be less than the parts, however competent the parts are. Ironically we can expect a poorly renumerated poet to be better edited by his poorly renumerated editor than a novelist by his. Or so it seems. Not just that long books like "Freedom" by Jonathan Frantzen needed pruning, or that "Wolf Hall" has passages that are utterly incomprehensible (in sense, its not about Mantel being too clever), but that many novels contain snippets of poor writing that get glossed over in a way that they wouldn't in a poetry collection. The "longeurs" of poetry books tend to be intellectual, rather than stylistic in my view. Too many poems about the same subject, or with the same worked-on feel. I've enjoyed reading my fellow authors in the Salt Modern Voices series at least partly because they seem books of about "the right length." Some Salt authors have been remarkably prolific over the years (and that goes for other imprints as well), but some of the Modern Voices are pamphlet plus in size; a nice length, more mini-album in an age of the double.

Yet the point made, which I didn't disagree with, reminded me of Pound's exasperation of the poetry of his day - and his desire that poets write with the same care as prose writers; clearly a hundred years ago some sea change had happened where the novel, that unruly ruffian, had usurped poetry in the quality of its writing. A lot of this seems to be about what we mean or don't mean by "style." I was away when the Late Review was talking about John Lanchester's "Capital" but from what I heard, there were opposing views about his prose style. There are no "darlings" to kill in "Capital", it reminds me of the utilitarian, non-showy prose of Jane Smiley or Yann Martell; every sentence perfectly okay in itself but doing a job, no more. Our best writers' prose does more than a job of course. And this seems perhaps a fundamental difference between poetry and prose. The "job" in poetry is also about the line, the words, the style - whilst in prose it can be "man walks through door." When the poet Sean O'Brien's novel "The Afterlife" was respectfully reviewed by other poets and others, they made a great play that there was no "showy" "poetic" prose. That it was a badly written novel was kind of glossed over, as if it was just a relief that a metaphorist had left that particular toolbox at home. Another poet-fiction writer, David Constantine imbues his stories with clear linguistic designs on the reader. His fiction is "doing a job" but not just a utilitarian job. His prize-winning "Tea at the Midland" uses style to withheld, to prompt. There's a question about whether, as a reader, one wants to be so manipulated, but there is no doubt that style is used here for a very particular purpose. I have sometimes found poets treat prose as being their "weekend art" - as if it doesn't matter if its sloppy. Worse though, I think, is where a workmanlike prose, perfectly adequate, but simply "doing a job" is then trumpeted as being literature. The prose stylist appears to be a rare beast these days - and can be a matter of taste. If the "workshop poem" has created a patina of glossy competence smoothing off the edges of many well-worked contemporary collections, then the "workshopped extract" has possibly done the same for prose. In a highly media-literate age, the fiction writer is asked, sometimes, to underperform, leave his linguistic tricks at home.

The "longeurs" are therefore less concern than a flatness that too many stories have. Part of this, I think, is the current dominance of the present tense and the first person narrative, often from an unreliable narrator. The sustained act of the non-authorial voice is in itself a triumph; and perhaps does so well because we want to hear "personal stories" but when I hear Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield speaking I hear something far more musical, far more messy, than the contemporary first person narrative - perhaps its the stuff of distance - but what Twain and Salinger give us is so much more than an everyman; more savant than idiot. In the sustained work that all novels are, the pursuit of "perfection" or the "right words in the right order" is a fool's gold, clearly... yet the tuned ear finds inconsistency more jarring than excitable prose. It is not, I'd contest, "your darlings" that need "killing" so much as your shopping lists, those pages and paragraphs written when your creative module is switched off and you're just concentrating on getting a job done - moving character from A to B. "He walked through the door." Martin Amis said his father said he should write more sentences like this, and that he thought his father should write less. Kingsley, of course, read "The Rachel Papers" (I think) and never bothered with any of his son's other novels. Despite more recent novels being disappointing, I'm glad we have John Self and Keith Talent.

Poetry - to me - seems in a fine old state; certainly in the 25 years I've been aware of it, its never seemed healthier - if only for its diversity, the panoply of voices and the range of opportunities. Many flowers bloom. I'm not so sure about prose - or the contemporary English novel.The stylist isn't dead, but he (or more likely recently, she) is hardly lauded. And style is something different than form, I feel. There is a type of well-bred English prose that cannot in all honesty be called bad writing; but the limits of what it can achieve are there to see in the well-bred English middle class novel. Writing better, at some point, means writing different.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Age of Production

I was reorganising my CDs recently and surprised to find I've got 9 CDs by Nirvana. Not because I'm not a big Nirvana fan - I liked them from "Bleach" onwards, though they were never quite my favourite band, and I was devastated when Cobain died, he's undoubtedly one of our most missed talents - but because they only actually released 3 studio albums. The rest of my Nirvana collection includes 3 live albums, 2 outtakes albums and a Greatest Hits (which includes a track not available elsewhere.) Nirvana are one of those bands whose detritus is greater than their production. The Stone Roses and the late Jeff Buckley also come to mind.  And its not like I've got everything they did. The super deluxe "Nevermind" and the full outtakes box were for the mega-fan only.

I was thinking about this today at the annoucement that "Blur are to mark their 21st birthday with a 21 disc boxset." Now I'm not particularly a Blur fan, apart from "Park Life" and the odd single since then, I've always found them a little faux to me - and Damon's fauxness since then has continued unabated in the not unpleasant Gorrilaz as well as myriad side projects. But "a 21 disc boxset" for a band who released 7 albums? It seems overkill. After all, the "extras" on the "Nevermind" CD were hardly critical - and increasingly, in an age of deluxe editions, rather than the "deluxe" preference being reserved for the band's best album, its often trotted out for even minor releases. Its also a paradox, going back to the Beatles and "Let it Be" that the most outtakes can be found from the least interesting times of their careers. I've lost track of the times I've wished there was a live album of a band at the height of their powers, only to have to wait several years for some bloated "greatest hits" live album from long after they were interesting.

Of course the record industry can't be blamed for milking its golden cows. There's an audience for, say, a Pink Floyd boxset which doesn't necessarily exist for Bogshed. (But, to be fair, some of the best "boxes" I've got are far cult bands.) Yet is there also something of the "monument" building about this? Just as certain classic authors find their complete "scholarly" edition to far outnumber their key works (letters, articles etc.) so its coming to pass that the rock fan has 12 albums of dubious merit for every "Parallel Lines" or "Thriller."
As a perpetual archivist myself, of my own work in particular, it seems a bit rich to talk about "over production", yet I've always gone back to older work, whether music or writing, with a very specific aim, to remind myself of how I got "here" - of paths forgotten. Going through some 4-track cassettes last weekend I found 3 or 4 "unreleased" demos, two of which for songs that I don't even remember, from 1997. In 30 years of recording, I'm currently at 750 tracks - a number that would dwarf that Blur boxset! Thankfully I've only put a fraction online.

But product in itself is not a bad thing - I'm thinking of all of the nice books and boxsets I've picked up over the years. I've been very grateful that the Cure archived their near-forgotten "Carnage Visors" soundtrack on their "Faith" album; or that Bruce Chatwin's letters, so close to being first runs for his novels, were finally collected a couple of years ago; whilst as a Fall fan, the thirst for "material" seems unquenchable. However, for cult bands that doesn't seem so bad. Its not like there's one Fall album or one Zappa record that is a must have. Buy into the myth of those artists and you pretty much want everything. In a different way the "complete" sessions of jazz legends like Miles Davis and John Coltrane have been fantastically interesting.
As an artist, interested in the "creative" process, even the outtakes or alternative versions are interesting if the artist is interesting - and there's no doubt there are some people who would put Blur in that category. Perhaps, just as with Radiohead, I'd be almost interested in a more wayward version of the Blur story than the relentless Britpop hits of their greatest hits period?

It all begins to make the Dylan and Beatles industries look a bit restrained however. The sixties Beatles released pretty much everything good that they ever recorded, and so the brilliantly compiled anthology series were merely alternate histories of their fecund creativity - whilst the clamour for Dylan bootlegs hasn't died down even as the bootleg series heads for double figures. Bands like Pearl Jam and Fugazi have gone as far as making every show available as an audio souvenir - yet haven't released an entirely satisfactory live album. I'm pleased that I've got "The Name of this Band is Talking Heads" (compiled from a long period of recordings) and "Stop Making Sense" and don't really mind that I haven't got anymore live material to choose from. Yet last time I looked the fascinatingly rough document that is "The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl" wasn't available to buy. Pop acts are best experienced through a greatest hits or their biggest album, so I'd much rather listen to "Thriller" than Jackson's well-compiled boxset.

Perhaps its all one last flurry. Blur at least are a band we remember from picture sleeves - almost the last Smash Hits style pop act the country has had. That the marketing logic of the 90s insisted on 2 CD singles for every release means that bands like Blur, Oasis and Manic Street Preachers were quite prolific in what they released, though only Oasis is renowned for the quality of its B-sides. Does Adele or whoever record anything more than the dozen tracks that make the album that you buy or download? Are the "extra" tracks on iTunes special editions just the same thing but in a different age? There would seem something odd about downloading a deluxe edition - more to be looked at, than listened to - yet you can do so. I've often thought we'd be compiling our own books and albums now, through online tools, but the thing is, who has the time?
In the age of a virtual project I wonder to what extent we'll even think in terms of an album to reissue? Will a future Jessie J or Adele boxset be simply a collection of their most famous songs, like those pre-album acts like Elvis or Chuck Berry?

So what's the most inappropriate deluxe edition or boxset anyone's seen, where the product doesn't deserve all this kerfuffle?

Friday, April 20, 2012

On Parody

I've been writing a poem a day for National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo) mainly because a few other poets I know are doing so. There's been a "prompt" every day which I've pretty much ignored, but several days ago the suggestion was a "parody." Without going into detail about they thought by that, I decided to have a go - and in the "mini sequences" within my April writing.

I've now written half a dozen "parody" poems - quickly and without too much thought. Parody can mean different things, can't it? I guess Katy Evans Bush's "pirate Prufrock" would be an obvious example - taking T.S. Eliot's poem and writing it in the style of a pirate. This is obviously funny, a well crafted entertainment, that requires a knowledge of the original poem (the better you know it, the better the spoof). Yet "parody" doesn't have to be broad, I don't think. The Prufrock poem is done with love, both for the original and for the language of pirates (The internet has promoted "a talk like a pirate" day which may have led to this one).

Yet I like to think that "parody" doesn't necessarily have to be funny, but can be homage or critique as well. My parodies are loose ones - and I've deliberately not mentioned the poet I'm thinking of in each one (they are well known ones, and not necessarily ones I've read that much.) What struck me in writing this series was how "parody" is a little like Mike Yarwood or Rory Bremner's impressions. You don't necessarily know the parodied writer that well, but there has to be enough of "signature" (the equivalent of a facial tic or a particular prop that a Bremner or Yarwood might accentuate) for you to do something "in the style of" that is in itself a new poem. There are quite a number of prize winning poets that I'd find it hard to pull out what their USP was. Even with these, I do wonder whether a poem like "Playing with Guns" is "generic Irish poet" rather than the one I was thinking of.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon's 2 million selling "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time" has been recommended to me on a number of times, so when I saw a World Book Night copy in the charity shop for £1.25 I decided to pick it up. It's rather irrelevant to "review" a book from 2003, which won the Whitbread and was a bestseller - I may well be the last person to have read it!

Yet there are some interesting questions of literary worth and reputation hidden away in the novel that I might tease out. The novel, as most people know, is a story of a teenage boy who has some kind of autism that means he goes to a "special school" even though the nature of his condition means that he is studying for A Levels in his favourite subject - maths. Christopher is a particular kind of unreliable narrator - in that he doesn't register what other people are feeling, but at the same time is incapable of telling the truth. Fused with his condition, is a plot based around a murder-mystery - of Wellington, his neighbour's dog. Christopher likes "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and this is another dog that didn't bark in the night time (a sign in this case that he was killed by someone who knew him.) Happy in his own way, but very aware of his limitations (he has bad days when he doesn't say a thing because he's seen 5 yellow cars going past) its a lovely act of teenage ventriloquism. Christopher tells us lots about himself and (more importantly to him) his interests - as a bright child might always do to an adult inquisitor.

The book is set in the kind of low-grade suburbia that rarely makes it into adult novels, but is an ever-present in the suburban children's fiction from which the book comes. "A first novel" for adults by a writer who had previously written a dozen or more for children - Haddon uses all his skills of empathy to create an engaging narrative. More problematic are the adults in the book. It's almost as if, in order to make this book for adults, rather than children, he's simply added lots of swear words, and a few adult themes, around sex and adultery. Yet we're so seeing the world through Christopher's eyes that the adult world is almost as mysterious to us as for Christopher. Living just with his father, the subtext to the novel is the devastation a child with problems can have on the adults who have to care for them. Though not a political novel, there's a sense of the isolation which people in this situation find themselves in in modern Britain. However, because Christopher is in a special school (rather than, say, in a mainstream school with a statement of special needs) there's a sense of isolation here as well. Christopher has no peers; his fellow pupils are referred to only by their (more serious) problems.

What is interesting about the novel is the way that, despite its careful narrative - based around the threats to Christopher's "safe" world and his quest to beat his own limitations - Haddon gives us an insight into Christopher's life through pictures, footnotes and mathematics puzzles. Ostensibly the story that Christopher is writing at his teacher's bequest, he fills it with the thing's he's interested in. It's as digressive a quest novel as "Tristam Shandy" or "The Rings of Saturn" - yet this is the most populist of novels. It's fascinating how some of the tropes of more experimental fiction are now routinely deployed in an easy-to-read bestseller. Whether or not you merely glance at the math's problems or learn something by concentrating on them, it's a powerful way of getting into Christopher's head.

Yet despite this apparatus, the one thing that I came away with was doubting, in many ways, whether this is actually an "adult" novel at all. For Haddon's adults lack the very thing that Christopher is given in spades; they have no obvious motivation. In David Mitchell's "Black Swan Green" a dissolving marriage is seen obliquely from the side - but here the marriage has already ended; and the implication, I guess, is that having a child with behavioural problems can break even a strong marriage. Poignant letters from Christopher's mother are badly spelt to such an extent that seems ridiculous in someone who is working as a secretary; whilst his dad, a plumber, is one thirds new man (looking after his disabled son with more patience than his mother managed) to two thirds misanthropic white van man. In teen-narrated fictions its always difficult to see the adult characters clearly, as teenage insight is at best, self-involved; yet the paper-thin characterisations wouldn't really stand up in daytime soap.

The success of the novel has lead to Haddon releasing two other books - another novel and a collection of poetry - and the children's writing has taken a backseat; but it's interesting that in a decade where the Harry Potter books have seen adults reading children's fiction without guilt, one of the bestselling books of the decade has been a children's book in all but name. Whereas novels like "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "Tom Sawyer" have appealed to children because of the age of their protagonist, "The Curious Incident..." is a strangely innocent hybrid. It's closer to those massively successful Sue Townsend books, like Adrian Mole and "The Queen and I", the mundane background (Swindon in this case) providing an easy backdrop for an awkward life. What particular aspect of the novel caught the zeitgeist is hard to know - but its probably the winning directness of Christopher as a protagonist, letting us into his world.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Coming Up

As usual in Manchester you could probably go to a literary event every night of the week - an art and digital event likewise etc. - though it's still annoying when two things clash such as on Thursday 19th when avant garde poetry and Chinese fiction go head-to-head. An unfortunate one this, as the Other Room is usually a Wednesday, but has had a change of venue, and for once, has moved to a Thursday - whilst the one off launch of a new anthology by Comma Press has probably been in the works for a long time. Then again, it might be, like I've said before, like the farmers and the cowmen in Oklahoma, "the poets and the fiction writers can't be friends!"

So makes your choice... Poetry Lovers here....

The Other Room 31

Fiction fans here....

Shi Cheng: Short Stories from Urban China

As I'd like to go to both, I'm perhaps quite relieved that the choice has been made for me. I'm at Schiphol airport returning from Amsterdam with work!

(But never fear, as you can see from the Other Room site they've a sterling summer programme - and the range of events coming up at Anthony Burgess is equally interesting and varied.)