Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Order of Things

If you are lucky enough to get a novel published then mostly that's the way it stays: an unchangeable and unchanging book; maybe part of your "backlist". Different editions come and go, but if the cover or introduction or font changes the chances are its the same thing. When we read "Wuthering Heights" or "The Great Gatsby" its pretty close to the same book that its first readers would have seen - the odd proofing error aside. There are exceptions of course - the two versions of "Tender is the Night" comes to mind; then there are books in translation where we can only hope that new translations are improvement - or closer to the original.

Its the same in music of course - where since "Rubber Soul" at least, the album has been a "thing". That my cassette copy of "Diamond Dogs" changed the tracklisting (to make the sides equal length - absurd for what is a concept album) or that the vinyl of "Defnitely Maybe" features a track that's not on the CD, are not so uncommon; and there are a few albums over the years which have appeared in multiple versions.

Yet the album compiler is making some decisions: about what to include and what not. "What's the new Mary Jane?" was left off "The White Album" and was no great loss; and one wonders what "Sgt. Pepper" would have been like if "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" hadn't been pulled from the sessions as a single. Compilations tend to slice and dice albums, or, for those that remain popular years later, do we lose the original context? Forgetting perhaps that this or that song first appeared as a single.

Not all novels appear fully formed. "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" was a long story issued along time before the Diaz turned it into the novel; "Finnegan's Wake" and "Ulysses" were first read in fragments and chapters. Its always interesting to come across poems or stories in their original context. SF writers have a long history of reworking work across different medium: the magazine version being almost a first draft of the idea. Poetry has many different lives: from magazine, to anthology, to collection, to selection. Sometimes the poem survives these changes, sometimes not.

I'm less wondering about the minor changes that take place between different versions of work - more about the way we as creatives decide to write and order things. The "themed" collection seems all the rage in poetry these days - whether a long "in memoriam" or inspired by a historical figure or particular place. When we first saw "Birthday Letters" by Ted Hughes, the "ordering" was pretty much chronological - though of when the events happened, rather than when the poems were written. I know that writers, artists, songwriters do often come back to themes or characters - and I guess we make our own rules as we go along. Maybe Hughes consciously or unconsciously realised that he was writing another "Sylvia" poem and developed a "house style" even if they weren't published for years later.

I've recently been recording some more music, and as usual, after a few tracks, I begin to realise that I'm not just recording one off pieces, but begin to think about how I can present these to the world. I've always done this: whether its poems, stories or songs; and whether or not they are getting published wider. Its partly a need to box off projects, rather than continue without any overarching structure; sometimes its just to give me a way of listening to my songs or letting other people read my stories or poems. I don't think there's any right or wrong - certainly outside of commercial considerations - but there's hopefully some artistic considerations going on. Half way through recording these new songs I suddenly got the idea to make a medley, Abbey Road-style, of some of those songs that I've been humming away in my head for years, but for some reason haven't ever made into songs. Often there's just been a chorus or a melody line, and so its hard to say when the song was actually written: several years ago - or now when I've got to flesh out the verses?

And I think there's always a bit of a difficulty - outside of novels at least - about the different orderings that we do. There's the order of things being written, the order of things being "published" or recorded, the order that we decide to put things into in a collection or an album. There's also the order with which people might come across what we write. At our NW Poets group yesterday, we had a nice discussion about Stevie Smith, one of our quirkier "minor poets". Smith is one of those writers most famous for a single poem, "Not Waving, but Drowning" and it strikes me that there will be thos who encountered it as it originally appeared in the collection of the same name in the late 1950s. (And as a popular reader of her work, maybe it was tested out on audiences before then.)

To what extent does it matter? There are plenty of songs that are best listened to on their own rather than in their parent album - and sometimes its quite bizarre where particularly lasting pieces turn up. Then there's the works that gain a reputation outside of the time they are written. Posthumous publication of Shelley's "The Masque of Anarchy", his poem about the Peterloo Massacre, revisited at the Manchester International Festival last week, makes one wonder about its impact - though it appearing in 1832, at the time of the Reform Act, can't be that coincidental. Political poems, of which I've written a few, need to be aired at the time of writing, I think, and do well to last.

Writers are defined not so much by what they write, but how they publish it and when. Poetry tends to happen in a certain silence anyway, a "news that remains news" if we are lucky. Even the successful poet will soon come to rely on his or her anthology appearances. Some works simply have a life of their own.

Yet I'm still struck by the artistic statement involved in "ordering", whether its a private collection, a live "set", or something grander. If we're successful then chances are that everything we write that makes a certain standard may come out at some time - but I think its interesting how writers and musicians (and artists as well no doubt) are canny enough not to forget their dribs and drabs. Rock historians will find songs by David Bowie or Brian Wilson cropping up out of time; and I'm sure poets and story writers might do the same. I've had stories that have took years to write one way or another - either from an idea or title I've long had, or something that's been abandoned and returned to.

Then of course there are the memories and the other material that come into our work. Do we order these chronologically? Of course we don't. I'm just writing a poem about the second world war, not my obvious subject, but based squarely in things I remembered my grandparents mentioning about their experience of it. Showing the first draft to my poetry group I had the unusual advice that maybe the poem's got too much stuff in it - and needs to be longer, or a series of poems - I realise that without realising it I was pouring memories into this small piece. Whether this is recycled (because they are so familiar to me) or new (because I've not used them before) hardly matters.

And when we look back on what we've done we also have some ordering to do: missing out weaker work or things that reflect a different mindset. I'm struck by how often I've adopted a persona in my music or my writing and yet now, stripped of an alias, I'd almost certainly have to have it directly under my own name. The work somehow changes in its new context.

It is, I think, as much part of being a creative as the thinking, as the writing. Even novels, those long and immutable works are only another way that we order things.


Jim H. said...

Sequencing: it's a topic of concern for novelists as well. Let's say there's some essential material from 10 or 15 years before the narrative present. Do you present it chronologically, as a separate, stand alone section? Do you work it in thematically, say, when it's relevant to the present? Is it spurred into 'consciousness' by something that happens in the present and then the mind of the POV character wanders out of the present and into the past?

Or, let's say you have a story that's told from the POV of a knowing narrator, who experienced something s/he wants to tell us about. Does s/he relate it in sequence or jump around as best suits his/her moral purpose?

Re-listening after many years to Quadrophenia, does it make sense at all to put my iPod on random or listen to it in original order? If the former, there's a different criteria: does the song stand on its own? If the latter, the story's throughline comes into play.

One more thing: the poem that's either too long or too short. That sort of thing comes up in short story critiques a lot. 'Oh, you should make that a novel!' or 'You need to radically cut that; it's got too much info.' That's when the writer begins to question form and what s/he's trying to accomplish with the particular story or poem.

Jim Murdoch said...

Ordering is, I agree, a nightmare. I never published a collection of my poetry for years because I couldn’t I find an order that satisfied me. These poems were all stand-alone pieces, they were never intended to have a life as part of a group and it was very hard for me to see them that way. As soon as I arranged them they were each changed by their setting and so I used that to my advantage and arranged them to suggest a kind of seven ages of man scenario which works. I have no idea what I’m going to do with my next book and it’s worrying me already.

The short story collection I spent days and days on. I had stories with omniscient narrators; I had stories in first and second person; I had stories in dialect; I had narrators of different genders; I even had a story in the future tense. My logic was to arrange the stories so that I kept everything as apart as possible, i.e. all the odd-numbered stories have female narrators, all the even-numbered have male with the exception of ‘Jewelweed’ where we have a male narrator talking about a woman; the three stories in the third person have a gap of five stories in between each of them; the dialect stories are similarly arranged. I intend to bring out a second collection—or, to be fair, the second half of the collection—in about three years and it’s arranged in a very similar manner: nineteen stories (the same as the first collection) alternating between males and females. And the book’s only 386 words shorter at the moment although once I get through editing it there’ll probably be no real difference.