Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

F. Scott Fitzgerald remains one of the 20th century’s most popular writers, and not just for “The Great Gatsby”, the short, iconic novel for which he is best known. His short stories have remained in print, and occasionally have a new lease of life – the film of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” – though it is for his novels that he is now best remembered; Gatsby in particular; but with only four completed, and one unfinished novel to his name, there are few writers who have quite so manageable an output. “This Side of Paradise” was his debut and the bestseller in his lifetime, but neither “The Great Gatsby” or the novel that belatedly followed it, “Tender is the Night,” sold sufficiently well in his lifetime for him to give up on more lucrative work: first magazine publication; then later writing for Hollywood.
            Published in 1934 but set a decade earlier, in “Tender is the Night” Fitzgerald sees his self-proclaimed “jazz age” through a different perspective. If Gatsby is a novel that always seems to reconcile the dazzling follies of that age with a romantic fallibility, so that even in Gatsby’s tragedy, we can still (as no doubt Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming film adaption will do) be seduced by the trappings of fame; in “Tender is the Night” there are no such comforts.
            I first read the novel at university, and although there have been two versions – it seems right now, as then, that it is not the chronological telling of Dick Diver’s life that best tells this story but the restored original text, beginning with Diver and his wife Nicole at the centre of a “moment” on the French Riviera.
            Whereas we say Gatsby through the framing device of the amiable Nick Carraway, here it is Fitzgerald who is the observer; but for a brief moment in the first few pages, he chooses another lens, that of the beautiful and very young Hollywood starlet Rosemary Hoyt. As new to the world that her fame has brought her into as she is new to the pristine sands of the newly fashionable summer beaches, she is an ingénue unlike many of Fitzgerald’s knowing flappers. Compared to Nicole, the heiress wife of Diver, she is as unspoiled as the private beach areas where the three of them meet. But in Fitzgerald it is not enough to be a hero or heroine, the tale is one of a wider set: where the gradations between class, style, wealth and inheritance are played out beautifully scene after scene. This is rich America in old Europe and making it anew. The novel is full of Americans behaving appallingly abroad and hoping somehow that their money, their American identity, and mostly, their indignation, can get them out of all kinds of scrapes. The beach where we first see Rosemary is a stage on which Fitzgerald’s sets and sets up all kinds of rivalries. Money isn’t enough; nor where that money has come from; its how you behave with money. Dick and Nicole Diver are a golden couple around which everything else hovers. Rosemary, an American starlet, is allowed instant access into their inner circle but others aren’t – though Dick and Nicole, always keen on not just the attractiveness of their friends, but the distraction they bring, aren’t immune to rubbing a few different groups together. We’ll later find out why, of course.
            What Fitzgerald gives us in these opening scenes is a virtually 3D picture of a time and a place. The writing is never less than dazzling, and never more so than when he describes a particular place. He uses description in a way that few others do, to either slow down or speed up a scene. In their languid idleness these characters wile away the summer in an approximation of happiness that, indeed, may actually be the real thing. Yet, nothing lasts for long.
            Rosemary has come there for relaxation after the completion of the promotional tour for her film, with her protective but supportive mother, and only on meeting Dick and Nicole does she consider staying any longer; yet the Divers are themselves ready to go. Place cannot hold them. With a coterie of friends, servants and even two children (who Fitzgerald admirably never quite forgets are there),  the Riviera is one staging post on a regular journey. 
            This is a Europe that is reminiscent in many ways of the West Egg grandeur we see in Gatsby; but whereas Gatsby creates a Xanadu from scratch in order to entice Daisy back to him; the Divers’ move through old Europe like a monarchic entourage.
            Fitzgerald was one of the first subscribers to “Ulysses”, and though he is not often thought of specifically as a modernist, for me “Tender is the Night” brings to bear as much of the new sensibility that Joyce and others have been torturously exploring, and attaches it to the societal brilliance of his earlier writing. For despite the glamour of the Divers’ world it holds it own tragedies. Diver is a graceful southern gentleman, transformed into such a dazzling figure through his own charm, but also by his wife’s wealth. Yet Nicole’s story – and how she met the young Doctor Diver – in a psychiatric institution – is in itself a tragedy that we encounter almost from the first, when the nosey Mrs. McKisco accidentally comes across Nicole with the mask down.
            For “Tender is the Night” is not a novel about surfaces; it is about how those surfaces are simply that. For Nicole is as much a victim of corrupt familial relations as the most broken of Faulkners characters; and Dick Diver, the knight in shining armour who rescued is as much a tragic idealist as that other Doctor, Lydgate in George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”, a novel I’ve always seen to have certain aesthetic and emotional similarities to this one.
            For though it would be easy in some ways to speak of “Tender is the Night” as a tragic love story it would be hard to know of which story we speak. Fitzgerald is a dangerous writer to read as a teenager, as he gives you both love’s fairy story, and its hidden despair. The only “happy” love in Fitzgerald is one that seems to be accepting of its peripheral nature. Carraway can happily have “his girl”; but Gatsby need that girl. And whatever he does is never quite enough. If Fitzgerald’s scathing comment on Tom and Daisy Buchanan in Gatsby – that they are “careless people” who “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness” – isn’t enough then the path of true love in “Tender is the Night” is, if anything worse. Diver, our great romantic hero, is also proven to be all kinds of betrayer; but most of all of himself.
            Having met and loved Nicole, though she begins ostensibly as his patient, which in itself is perhaps the most terrible betrayal a medical man can make; he falls for Rosemary for reasons that are that of every middle aged man (though he is hardly thirty), because he can. Yet so believable is this ménage, with Rosemary almost in love with obth Nicole and Dick, that we wish it to be so: even though what must come from it is hard to envisage. This, after all, is an age of promise; pointedly, even after the action of the novel is over, we are given no word on the foreboding truth of the great crash of 1929. Nicole’s old money, we must assume, like that of our contemporary rich, is immune. For Diver, a promising psychologist, with a successful primer already to his name, has already seen the best of himself when he falls for Nicole. That he becomes a socialite, only ostensibly working on his practice is another layer of the many tragedies in here. Yet, whereas Gatsby can sometimes be seen as superior melodrama – where we know not how he made his money, or, what might have become of him, if tragedy hadn’t struck – in “Tender is the Night” there is an observational honesty that in literature seems to be almost twenty or so years too early. For Diver’s story fades; Nicole’s fate is to run from her Fitzgerald-like figure to a gruffer, Hemingway-type. Tempting as it is to map “Tender” onto Fitzgerald’s life, the bits that seem closest are to do with the sensibilities that make us fall in and out of love; and make us do the things that destroy that love. Alcohol is never an unbitter taste in “Tender is the Night”, its dark side is shown to us early on in the form of the spent-talent of Abe North; a warning, ignored, to Diver of what he might become. Even Rosemary, given to us as a near-Lolita-like coquette, is later shown to be a wooden talent, hanging on to a facile career in the movies, and the teen-love of Dick Diver having either spoilt her forever, or been a single moment of truth in an otherwise dishonest life.
            Nicole is fascinating – for she is a victim, who becomes stronger; and love, which she had unambivalently for Dick, becomes as much a sign of her malady as anything else. That Fitzgerald is writing this story of adult lives, whilst touching on so many of the societal shifts of the day is a marvel in itself. Reading the novel again after so many years, I’m struck by its modernism. Not its debt, so much, to Lawrence (in particular), and Joyce, but how he has learnt from their willingness to go so much deeper into the souls of their characters, how he might probe a little further himself. But there is never any solipsism in Fitzgerald; for he has always been the most honest of writers; honest in a specific way – observing the world as it is rather than how he might want it to be. Thus, Nicole’s horrific sister Baby Warren becomes almost bearable as the novel progresses – Dick’s fall being what she had hoped for, but in seeing it happen, her own silliness is put into some perspective.
            Throughout the novel Fitzgerald subtley, and in my view, magnificently manages as mix of the brilliantly written orchestrations that we know from Gatsby, with a deeper, more piercing sensibility, that renders the characters as alive as any in literature. Trying to shepherd the ever drunken Abe North away from Paris, they become embroiled in one of several dramas that pepper the book – yet seeing North and Nicole alone Fitzgerald has the presence of mind to add that “unlike lovers they possessed no past; unlike man and wife they possessed no future.”
            Away from the Riviera, away from Paris, the novel has to find different colours. We come to the young Dick Diver meeting Nicole for the first time. His tragedy, beginning even then, is that he is not the brilliant man he had hoped to be; is his love – or pity, for it may well be that – for Nicole reason enough for this, or would Dick Diver always have been looking for a brighter future than the one that beckoned as a psychological scholar? Compared to the rest of the novel, Diver’s medical years are somewhat underwritten, and it’s perhaps easy to see why. Here is a world that Fitzgerald only knew second hand – through Zelda’s travails mostly – but was already fascinating the 20th century author. The “mind” not “God” is the new frontier of understanding and, to some extent, faith – yet Fitzgerald, a writer who, more than any other, always seems to believe in us – in men and women – despite our failings and frailties, is perhaps less suited to such a pursuit. Perhaps another lesson here from George Eliot; that Diver was to be no Casaubon forever trying to unlock the “Key to all Mythologies”, but someone dimly aware that the best he is to do, he has already done.
            Re-reading “Tender is the Night” after a number of years – though I’ve frequently gone back to the glorious early chapters – I’m struck by what a modern novel it is; that it seems to absorb the modernist lesson, whilst only once or twice falling for its more clunky teachings. A writer as good as Fitzgerald struggled for years with “Tender is the Night” yet the writing within belies that. His own struggles, with an ailing wife and alcoholism, seem to find more than just echoes in the novel – yet it doesn’t feel like autobiography; for that we have “The Crack up”; more it feels like a mature work by a writer who has personally known both the worst than life can do, but also the best that it might offer.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Hidden Music of Future Past

 In the week that Robin Gibb and Donna Summer both died there have been many articles about disco, and the sense that it has remained ubiquitous despite its startling fall from grace at the end of the 70s. Was disco really a “future music” as we hear in Summer’s number 1 smash “I feel love” or is it mired in its age inseparable from those images of John Travolta in the white suit? It seems when you have the likes of Paul Gambacinni and Mike Read wheeled out, that they are not responding to disco’s future-modernism, but its cheese. Gambacinni has never to my knowledge praised anything countercultural, whilst Mike Read’s credentials for discussing disco in any way are damaged by his absurd banning of “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

We love disco because of its nostalgic hedonism – and when we talk about it we talk primarily about the good time music that included everyone from ABBA to Zappa. (“Sheik Yerbouti” indeed.) The excellent crate-digging of the “Disco Discharge” series does return us to the future shock of disco – but is as often seen rummaging around the 80s as it is finding gems from discos heyday.

House music - which began, to all intents and purposes, half a decade later seems to me to still be the future music that disco promised to be, but without the cheesiness, and without the superstars or the iconic movie. It remained black, gay and urban enough to mean that though eighties stars like Paul Weller, Pet Shop Boys and ABC dabbled in it, you’ll look hard to find a rock band making any house moves. (Though it could happen, as the various U2 remixes show – but it was the “remix” that created that at one remove.) As the “future disco” series of contemporary compilations shows, there’s a thin line between the most processed of disco moves and the more soulful side of house. Modern incarnates like dubstep seem to weave in and out of genre, creating a hybrid electronic dance music.

Yet, house music – during the decade on from 1985/6 – remains the soundtrack to the late 20th century without the attendant nostalgia of bands like the Stone Roses reforming. There’s a vast variety to the house music of that decade – and subgenres multiplied – but has there been a musical form as recognisable as house since rockabilly? Whether it’s the Shamen’s “Move Any Mountain”, Candi Staton and the Source’s “You Got the Love” or Underworld’s “Born Slippy”, these are clearly brothers and sisters in house. Underworld began as pseudo prog-pop band freur, Candi Staton’s voice was lifted and placed over a Frankie Knuckles backing, and the Shamen were a psychedelic indie band who went more house than the Roses or Mondays would ever dream of.

It is 30 years since the Hacienda opened – and the club was probably one of  the first places in the UK to play house. Of course house didn’t come from nowhere. The underground disco of the early eighties was metronomic, machine music, at its best when flirting with electro beats like Shannon’s “Let the Music Play.” But house music simplified things as well as innovating in its own way. The innovations were stylistic and startling. For a start, house was the first music since the 1950s surf explosion to be primarily instrumental. Instead of verses and choruses, we had orchestral stabs, piano breaks, synthesizer breakdowns. Structurally these songs weren’t the blues. Hearing “Jack Your Body” and “Jack the Groove” (the first two breakout records) in 1986, at a disco in Preston I immediately heard a fracture with the jazz-soul-funk music that went for club music in the mid-80s. And that was probably the last time summer where anyone who really liked dance music went to a “disco” rather than a “club” or a “rave.” Hacienda was the first, but stark (and not so stark) house clubs turned up all over. It may have been particular drug-fuelled subgenres a year or two later that led to the phenomenon of the free party movement, raves and warehouse parties, but it was also happening in traditional night clubs – often turned over to house (and suddenly without a dress code) on a Monday or Wednesday night.

Whereas disco had Summer and the Bee Gees, a genuine superstar of the genre, and the most successfully crossover act to reinvent themselves as disco, house had nobody – not unless you count the “superstar DJs”. Even now, nearly 30 years later, it is clubs (Cream, Ministry of Sound, Hacienda) and DJs that are the most associated name with the genre – though to be honest the distinctions were always vague. A DJ could be become associated with a venue – a “night” might be more important than the venue where it took place – and early records by Frankie Knuckles or Marshall Jefferson or whoever, guaranteed a career for these luminaries for many years.

For despite its ubiquity – even now, house nights proliferate, and often fit seamlessly with dubstep and other genres – house music remains a “hidden music” in a way that few other genres have done. The lack of big names is part of it; and to some extent the nostalgic memories of Spike Island, the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays and the Hacienda are as much about the scene that they ran parallel to as the bands themselves. I don’t think the young kids listening to the Stone Roses 20 years on would even relate to the band as part of the house movement. Indeed, I remember going to the Hacienda on a packed Saturday night in 1988 and you wouldn’t have heard a guitar all night. Cheaply packaged album series like Jack Trax and Warehouse Raves were the suburbanites way into this specialist genre; but at the same time the least expected tracks would jump out and into the charts. That house music can still surprise can be seen by the massive US number one, “Like a G6” by Far East Movement, a minimalist slice of acid house, two decades out of place.

A couple of years ago I digitised a few of my vinyl house records – thinking I’d put together a decent enough CD compilation – I ended up with 10 volumes and could probably have added ten more if I’d repeated artists, or included CDs. It’s a wonderful reminder of ten years of invention. Rave, acid house, techno, trance, ambient, even early jungle/drum and bass, are all there. There are brilliant songs (“You Got the Love”, “Promised Land”), great reworkings of pop hits (“Even Better than the Real Thing”) and exciting instrumentals. Listening to “No Way Back” by Adonis or “Alright, Alright” by Masters at Work or “Let’s Get Brutal” by Nitro Deluxe I feel like I’m still listening to a future music. Yet this would be like thinking Ray Charles’s wonderful “What’d I say?” was still the future sound in 1986!

Electronic music has always been part of my life – I was 14 when “Dare” came out – and so though I like guitars, I’ve always been suspicious of guitar-lovers insistence that theirs is the only “real music.” Yet as a genre, house, which to my mind existed in its pure form for about a decade (what comes after does seem nostalgic in some ways), remains refreshing and futuristic. It will never have a Paul Gambaccini gushing over the death of one of its superstars (though men in their late 40s might still come up to Dave Haslam or Paul Oakenfold or whoever and say “Tune!” when they play an old school classic) and, in looking which of my vinyl rips were on Spotify, I see its strictly limited: the pop hits and the tracks that have been recycled on compilation after compilation. As much 60s garage or Northern Soul, house was a music of delicious one shots and cash-ins; often the remixer on the title was more important than the original band. In a world where absolutely everything seems at hand and on the internet it’s quite nice to find there is a bit of a gap in the official record – only half of the tracks I’d digitised can be found on Spotify, and then often not the same mix. Wikipedia doesn’t give anything like the same reverence for one-offs as it does for bands. There are specialist sites where I guess you’ll probably find most things; and every charity shop has a pile of anonymous 12”s that are worth investigating – but despite the plethora of “Cream Classics” and other such compilations; it’s also a hidden future-past. Perhaps you had to be there, popping along to your local record shop each Monday morning (Ear Ere in Lancaster or Tracks in York, for me) and picking up whatever looked worth investigating. I was at University in 1986, and wrestling my friends away from “indie” music to listen to the “House Sound of Chicago” was an impossible task (most of them got it later, either through E, or through hybrids like Trance), and I’m a little jealous of those a bit younger than me who came of age when club culture was already in full swing. By the time I made it to the big city, Manchester, it was 1992 and house had almost become part of a bigger thing – or rather, it had gone a bit underground again, as bands like the Prodigy and nights like Megadog took it another direction.

I’ve kept up with dance music from afar – with R&B and dubstep appealing now and then – but away from club culture and with the demise of Record Mirror and other dance friendly magazines, its been a while since I’ve really took much interest. House is the music of my late youth if you like; that period when you suddenly feel too old for things, on the cusp of adulthood. Yet if I’ve been feeling a bit nostalgic about this week, I don’t think it’s at all a nostalgic music. Crisp, minimal electronic music is a timeless style – and if most of it was produced cheaply in the late 80s and early 90s – it remains a somewhat hidden side of contemporary music; there is not, as far as I know, a “House Britannia” on BBC4. 

Listen to  My Spotify playlist

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Miscellany

The blog-life balance has been wildly to the latter; which is good - of course - but time for reflection has been a little limited. I might go for a few vignettes rather than something more substantive.


NaPoWriMo was probably a bad idea as having written a poem a day, until the last few days when I ran out of steam, I've not been able to think poetry or read poetry since. The work itself lies forlorn and lonely in my notebook mainly. I need to structure my poetic thoughts as I'm reading in a couple of weeks in St. Ann's Square for the Manchester  Book Market and I need a "new set." The book market will have a wide range of small presses and performers, and I'm reading on the Saturday afternoon.

FutureEverything festival was stimulating as ever. I was involved with organising elements of it, this year, in my work context, which meant I didn't catch as much as I wanted. I particularly regret missing the Icelandic MP Birgitta Jónsdóttir since as well as being an activist and politician, she is a poet, and apparently read a poem as part of her keynote. However, I was lucky enough to have a chat with her outside the venue - without realising at first who she was - where we compared notes on reading poetry to different sizes of crowds. Iceland, that small, unique nation, that got so badly treated by the financial collapse of some of its overreached banks and companies, seems a canary in the capitalist coalmine. Its hardly a surprise that they value art and culture as important.
Chorlton Arts Festival continues over this coming final weekend. There are many things going on - and if the weather keeps as nice, it will surely be vibrant. 
I've been thinking again about my artistic process. Malcolm Gladwell's writing that "genius" is the result of "10,000 hours" of work is one of those memes that once heard, sticks with you. As someone who writes short and long fiction, poetry and music, I've certainly put in the hours, but I'm wondering whether that's too diverse a field. Do you get better by writing more? Is there a limit? Many writers say they are "rewriters" but I'm not sure I've ever agreed that that's the most important thing. I've often said to musician friends that they should write and record as much as they can at an early age - and same for writers - in that the "spark" or "inspiration"  - the ideas that you have often die out as you grow older: but if you've a large enough palette to go back to you can refresh and renew. I'm wondering if I'd have been a better/more successful writer if I'd kept writing novels? Its not that the ideas ran out, but that the energy involved seemed too great. I do know that I went from not really knowing what a short story was, to becoming a good story writer - and had, in the late 90s - quite a number published. Since then I've found it harder. Have I got worse? Have my ideas narrowed? I'm not sure. I've written over 100 stories yet have had very little success in the genre. Have I got worse? I don't think so - but perhaps I've got less focussed; or, here's another view, less brave. My stories used to be flights of fancy, written in a rush of inspiration - more recently they are worked over; sometimes painfully, sometimes over months. That said, I've read quite a lot of stories recently; there's been a resurgence in the publishing of the form; but I have to say I've been a little underwhelmed. I'm looking forward to the 2nd Salt anthology of "best short stories" as a snapshot of the art. So, is the issue that one needs to be single-minded about ones art to exclusion? I'm not so sure. A lot of poets/writers/musicians/artists I know want to diversify: whether its poets writing radio plays or stories or novels or whatever. Being very good in one genre doesn't necessarily lead to being very good in other areas of course, but something must survive, something must transfer. So, what to write next? I'm thinking about it, I'm thinking about it. 

A friend's book group was unimpressed by F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender is the Night", it was my favourite novel. But is it still? I picked it out of the cupboard and started reading it again; its been way too long. The copy I've got has pencil marks in the margin from when I was studying it at University (I've read it since, but at least a decade or go.) The reading group comments have been helpful actually; it is a novel not without flaws (as I've always known, and part of my fascination with it.) I could write 10,000 words just on this novel. Maybe I will. 

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Influence and Genre

The always fascinating SF writer Charles Stross has written a blog post entitled The Death of Genre. Its well worth reading the whole post, but he starts by saying "Science Fiction literature is unusual in that much of the work within the field exists in constant dialog with other works." Unusual, but not unique of course; but what I call the "transmission mechanism" that allows ideas to populate is perhaps more integral to the SF community. Partly this is its future-sense: you want to know where the ideas are coming from, and where they might go to. Partly its the close relationship between SF readers and SF writers. All writers are readers first (at least, all good writers are), but in SF I imagine there's an intensity of the relationship that isn't as obvious in other genres. Hilary Mantel clearly likes history, but whether she likes historical fiction is less obvious - one could even argue that "Wolf Hall" is a refutation of so much of historical fiction's attachment to narrative.

That's an aside. But the SF reader = the SF writer in a way that is unusual in most other genres. The filter for ideas is other science fiction as much (or more) than non-fiction or other genres. Part of that is because it exists as cult as much as genre. But it's a big cult these days; witness film successes such as "Avatar" and the continuing repackaging of "Star Wars." Stross reminds us that "around 30% of the big budget movies to come out of Hollywood each year are recognizably science fiction" but its a particular version of SF, signifiers being aliens; spaceships - and "something is missing upstairs."

For the SF writer/reader doesn't come to it - or never used to come to it - because he or she wants relentless space opera. Its for the ideas, stupid. And here's the interesting thing about Stross's article it's that he explicitly acknowledges the dialogue that happens between SF writers - that they explicitly and implicitly respond artistically (intellectually, if you like) to what others are doing. This is interesting in itself - because I guess many writers in other genres probably curse when an idea they've been playing with gets taken up by someone else. The idea that you don't just respond to another writer because you're looking for a bandwagon to jump on, but because it has opened up an interesting artistic/intellectual pathway is a fascinating one. And of course, there's one other genre where it also takes place: and that is poetry.

But to remain with Stross for a minute; he's asking how e-books are changing things. The argument, I think, is that genre becomes more rather than less  with e-books. Personalisation (whether through Amazon recommends or whatever) narrows rather than expands. The serendipity of the old bookshop is being replaced by an endless market place - where "the infinite bookshelf is already a problem for us." Choice in this sense becomes problematic. "There was so much less SF in the 1970s that it was quite possible for those of us who grew up reading the field back then to acquire a comprehensive coverage of it" concludes Stross and here is the nub of the problem as he perceives it. A genre that has, on the one hand become pretty massive and mainstream; and on the other hand has spawned imitation rather than conversation. In that space, he's arguing the lack of clear curation is going to have a debilitating effect on the future SF writer.

What struck me from reading Stross's piece - and re-reading it today - was that it echoes our field; poetry. Even as recently as 1995 when I had my first poem published in a small magazine it was possible to sit in the Poetry Library on the South Bank and pretty much read every magazine; get a sense of the "scene" from the few anthologies available; and memorise most of the names. There was a loss here as well; the British "scene" had narrowed quite considerably, so that you could read Peter Forbes' "Poetry Review" or your Motion/Morrison Penguin anthology and not even realise there had ever been anything like an avant garde. But still, that aside, by 1997 I'd found room for Les Murray and John Ashbery in my personal canon. It's perhaps no coincidence that 1996 saw the publication of the Sweeney/Shapcott anthology "Emergency Kit" which explicitly states something is wrong in the state of English poetry and looks wider.

The doors have come off since then. The rise of the MA (Poetry) (almost invisible in the late 90s) and a rash of cheap offline and online publications - as well as a revival in interest in new forms; and the continued baptisms of fire that the festival and spoken word scenes provide - has meant that whereas you might survey the scene in the 1990s and keep coming across the same names; get a sense of who was writing what - and have a dialogue with them; it may well be impossible to do that now. Add together the number of poets in Salt's younger poets or Nathan Hamilton's selections for the Rialto and the list of names stretches into the distance. Re-reading the Salt book yesterday, it was "Emergency Kit" that came to mind. These seemed to be poems that responded to that invocation of "poems for strange times." Along with the inevitable introspection and solipsism of young writing, there are myriad worlds of influence and style. The quality, I'd hasten to add, is pretty high - and, even more so, there's very few of those "I did this, I did that" poem that sometimes seemed to suffocate British poetry in a blanket of the overly-familiar.

So, on the one hand things are pretty good: that the transmission mechanism is not only there, but in a fully working order - and clearly there are poets who know each other; scenes within scenes - and there are clearly influences (Ashbery amongst them) that are to be welcomed. Ironically, our high priests, the Sean O'Briens, the Simon Armitages, the Carol Ann Duffy's seem less apparent as influence than one might have imagined half a dozen years ago. Cheap and on-demand publication has made it much easier to publish a wider range of poets. The letter I got a dozen years ago from an editor apologising that (I paraphrase), "a lot of poetry that would have got published, doesn't now, because our lists are full" thankfully doesn't still apply. 

Yet, I've been reading Chicago's "Poetry" for the last three years in an attempt to get the temperature of American verse, and I've failed to. The names of poets come and go, they are all good, all more than competent - and there are so many of them. The better known names, I see now, seem to be from a slightly early group, and making sense of the many is harder and harder. Because that dialogue that Stross talks about in SF is also necessary in poetry. Does one jump across the generations to talk with Robert Lowell or Allan Ginsberg? Or does one talk in university common rooms or urban pubs with ones peers? Or does one peruse the internet - plucking out those pluckier poets who publish there? Shamefully, we've not seen a second northern poetry library to match the southern one. I was lucky enough to be living in London from 1996-7 and that helped in so many ways as I started taking poetry seriously once more, in my late 20s. Anthologies, magazines and nights offer their own entry-point: but though we are at a good point in so many ways; so many poets, so much of it a reasonably quality, so many different facets - I'm much less sure that one can keep the whole thing in one's mind. Pick out a poem or a poet that you quite like - say in the Bloodaxe anthology "Identity Parade" - and explore a little. Editors like Roddy Lumsden have been remarkably catholic compared with their predecessors (that Motion/Morrison book again), but reading more poems and more poets than I've ever done, I find it harder to pick it out the stand out poem of the year or the generation or even of the moment; I find it harder to use reading (at least reading of contemporary work) as a useful counterpoint to my writing.

In the US this "problem" (if it is a problem) is multiplied. The number of English-language poets writing in the world would make a small army now. Its possible to ignore (wilfully or accidentally) the big names, or the local scenes without even noticing. Over time, I wonder if this call for attention - that me, every other poet, makes - becomes a cry of loneliness? And if it is other poets that remain key to any poet's own development (even if its in rejection of their work), then I do think its the poem that is the thing that makes a difference. With a couple of exceptions, its hard to recall a particular poem of this last decade that either exemplifies the age, or stands beyond it. My sense is that I'm worrying too much; that Stross is worrying too much. But poetry and SF have a few things in common. They have both a popular image, and a hardcore following. The former can sometimes deafen the latter (We're still in a world where "If" is our nation's favourite poem!) - their advocates are passionate; their best writers are often their best readers. But also I wonder if both are accidental victims of the paradigm shifts of the information age? Where is SF in a world that looks so much like the future that it predicted? And where is poetry when it leaves behind the bearings of its age, and speaks only to and of itself? The answer, as ever, is in the works that are yet to come. Bring them on.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Coming Up

Bank Holiday weekend and a few highlights.

I hope to finally get to hear Hungarian poet Agnes Lehoczky. I bought her debut collection "Budapest to Babel" a couple of years ago. She's reading with Menna Elfyn and with music from the intrigueing sounding Yiddle Sticks Klezmer Ensemble at the Whitworth Gallery this afternoon from 2.30pm in the latest Poets & Players

Tomorrow afternoon its time for Sounds from the Other City, Salford's multi-venue urban music festival. Hardly anyone I've even heard of, but that's part of the fun. Oh, and there is poetry and fiction squeezed in between the music - with Chris McCabe, Tom Jenks, the Bad Language crew and others.

On Tuesday night one of my all time favourite bands, the Three Johns play a rare gig at Gulliver's. The Three Johns were stalwarts of early 80s Peel and with robust psycho classics like "Death of a European" always seemed one of the eras most unquantifiable bands. 

I'm pleased that the Castlefield Gallery fundraising auction has gone live and on time. The Gallery is an important part of the city's artistic ecosystem and has an exciting two year programme lined up following up on its temporary closure, and the auction is a clear sign of how highly it is regarded by artists who have been associated with it in some way over the years - and the donated work is stunning. You'll be able to visit the Gallery to see the work from next Friday, bidding is available online, and will continue on the night of 30th May, compered by Pavel Buchler.

A recent Facebook conversation - talking about the surrealists - was asking why writers and artists don't collaborate as much as they used to. A question raised again in the latest edition of Corridor 8, available from the Cornerhouse. The art magazine continues to intrigue, this time focussing on artist run spaces, and revisiting an iconic but forgotten publication called "Breakthrough Fictioneers". The magazine has focussed on the interface between literature and art beforehand (looking at Moorcock's "New Worlds" in particular) but again I'd ask the question: Where are the writers? Rather than artists-that-write it would be good to see some genuine interface...it was something we did with Lamport Court of course (2 of our alumni are featured in the Castlefield auction for instance!) and something I want to encourage with my new venture...

Yes, I'm planning on a new magazine, called, "A New Magazine". The basic details of what I'm looking for are here - and I hope to have the bones of the magazine together by end of May for an end of June/early July completion. Still very keen to hear from writers and critics.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

No Political Theatre

I can be a political junky at times. Though its a long time since I was a party member, (and briefly, ward treasurer!), that's more because of my artistic take on the world - like the most politically astute Marx, i.e. Groucho, I wouldn't join a club that would have me as a member. I'm temperamentally unsuited to following party lines; even if most of those point left. I cheered wildly when the coalition ditched the identity card plans for instance; yet stubbornly put my cross in the Labour box at the general election because I never had any illusions which side the coalition was going to be on.

At our last voting opportunity - for AV - my natural democratic instincts strongly supported, however flawed, a move to a slightly more democratic system - and was surprised, not just that the vote went for the status quo, but that the Labour party was so ambivalent about the issue. If Cameron/Clegg abolish an unelected House of Lords I'll be shaking my head with amazement that this wasn't possible in a decade or more of New Labour. Yet, there are few policies where I see eye-to-eye with either of those Arrogant Posh Boys, ahead of the younger Milliband.

Tomorrow, in Manchester, as well as electing a third of the council, the city has an opportunity to say whether or not it wants a Mayor. As a natural democrat, my instinct is always to support anything that improves choice, and makes up for this country's appalling democratic deficit - and will certainly vote tomorrow. However, the mayoral election has put me in a bit of a quandary.

I'm guessing that the Labour party in the city are against it - though the "no" campaign seems to have adopted a tactic of "don't mention it" probably wary of the last council-run referendum, on road pricing - but it's hard to find any real information on either side. A  letter from the "no" campaign in the M.E.N. and some half hearted under-publicised debates aside, we're voting tomorrow on a question that hasn't exactly fired the imagination.

As I said, I'd usually choose any widening of the democratic franchise, but this one's more complex. For its uncertain what powers a mayor would have or how that would work with - presumably - an elected council executive. You could well imagine the current leader of the council standing and simply changing the job title on the door.

This coalition hasn't shown much interest in a region where it lacks any political mandate so it's hard to come to any other conclusion that the Mayoral referendum is a distraction deliberately pitched at Northern Cities to weaken rather than strengthen their say on the national stage. So, with no real sense of which way the vote will go, tomorrow I'll be voting against a mayor for the city; even as across the Irwell, Salford chooses its first elected mayor. I'll be looking at both votes with interest.