Monday, December 30, 2013

Come on, Next Year

Where did 2013 go?

I've hardly had the energy to round things up. I was out of action for three months in the summer following a detached retina, briefly seeing my future as a blind man in a house full of books.

I had poems published in Best of Manchester Poets and Sculpted: Poetry of the NW and a story in Unthology 4; as magazines and small presses moved into books from pamphlets and magazines, often of as high (or higher) quality that mainstream imprints. I read a few times throughout the year, for which I'm always grateful of the opportunity, though primarily locally - Manchester, Didsbury even.

Anyway I've been working on a poetry collection, though before I try and get a publisher, I'm probably going to see about getting a few poems in magazines - though its such a crap shoot these days. As for fiction I've a great story that been bubbling away for months, and still needs a last rewrite, and a couple of other's in less finished states. I've been looking at writing long fiction again, though with a full time job and reduced energy levels I'm sure that's always going to be difficult to achieve. I will continue in that general direction, however.

I've continued to enjoy making music, and my 5th album since starting music again in 2007, "Kleptomania" is now available to download, as accomplished as anything I've done.

In truth, its been something of a mixed year; I sometimes feel that I'm just treading water creatively, yet paradoxically, the quality of the work continues to get better, I think, or at least get's different, as I change not so much my approach but my aim. In that sense, Manchester is a great place to remain, as there's something literary on, if not quite every night, certainly every week.

So 2014 is likely to see some upheavals - life wise it feels time for a change, of flat perhaps, and given the continued cutbacks to public service in this country, the likelihood of the job coming under threat again seems quite high. I'll be 47 in March, so need to prioritise life things again.

Looking forward to more engagement with art (in particular), poetry and music during 2014, and with a world cup in Brazil in the summer that should be fun (or stressful!)

My travels eased off a little in 2013, but I still went away eight times, visiting Lisbon, Barcelona, Dublin and Vilnius for the first time, all cities I'd happily return to. With  Madrid and Rome in February, I'm looking forward to being one of the few remaining pro-Europeans in England!

I've another week off before going back to the office, so time for a few bits of creativity - even if the main thing will probably be the "fun" of poetry admin (stuffing poems in envelopes to magazines!)

Happy New Year for tomorrow night.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

I'll be honest, I wouldn't have picked up this short book by Colm Toibin had it not made the Booker shortlist. The thought of Toibin tackling Mary, mother of Jesus, didn't exactly fill me with expectation. Praised for the minutiae, thoughtfulness and clear style of novels like "The Blackwater Lightship", his Henry James novel "The Master" and "Brooklyn" he has frequently focused on one or more strongly imagined female characters. Yet, Toibin's females have always seemed to me, despite his impressive probing of their inner lives, as ciphers in some ways, too easily fitting into Madonna/whore stereotypes. We get to know what they are thinking, but we don't believe these are women who could actually exist  - or not as Toibin shows them.

Mary, mother of Jesus, is therefore the ultimate woman who couldn't actually exist. The miracle of the Virgin birth; the obscurity of her position; and the scant information in the gospels - this provides a challenge for any imaginings of her. In "The Testament of Mary" Toibin has written this as a sort of prison memoir; Mary, visited by two unnamed visitors who are wanting her testimony so that the gospels can be written, is a dying woman, remembering the cataclysms that affected her life - not just the death of her eldest son, but of her husband Joseph. In this short book, little more than a gospel itself, she reminisces as a necessary "putting down" of the truth. In this Toibin makes some oddly reverential choices. Jesus is inviolable. He is the gospel version, without annotation or embellishment. I think Toibin is doing what Stoppard did with Rosencrantz and Gilderstern, (and other novelists have done with other characters), in telling a familiar story through an unfamiliar character. He seems torn between showing Mary as the icon of catholic imagination, and as a poor Jewish woman of her time.

She tells us she is illiterate, yet the voice Toibin gives her is in a high register, poetic in parts, vague in others. That other novel about an old woman remembering - "The Oldest Conferedate Widow Tells All" - gave us a woman of many parts, whilst Toibin's Mary, in such a short few pages remains both enigmatic, and to some extent frustrating. She both knows too much and not enough. Unaware of her son's progress - apparently without her other sons (where are they?) and with Joseph dead (when? how?) - she becomes an unwanted spectator at the wedding in Cana, or in the crowd calling for Barrabas to be freed. Yet at the same time, she seems to know the intricacies of the conspiracy about her son. The one time we see them together - at that wedding - Jesus is imperious, dressed as a king, not as the poor carpenter's son of Nazareth, and ignores his mother's presence. What is this Jesus then? Who is this Mary?

It is not without its pleasures, but they are minor ones. Mary is occasionally obstreporous, angry - and this Mary seems a little more vivid. But one can't help but think that Toibin gets less close than Monty Python when they said "He's not the messiah, he's a very naughty boy." Mary here is the mother of the child who went away to the big city and it killed him. Her anger is palpable, understandable - and, as the short book ends with her being whisked away from the scene of his death - the scribes taking down her story rewrite it (as Toibin has) and whatever role her son has in the future, "it wasn't worth it."

What to make of this confection? It probably doesn't deserve the freight that comes with it being published as a "novel" - and particularly its Booker shortlisting. Toibin has desires on his reader, as he always has; nudging us along to see Jesus's death as not just a tragedy for humankind but for Mary - yet the Mary story is more complex than this parable. He never really reimagines her as a woman of her time; and the brief few lines about the Roman occupation seem to lack veracity. Its frustrating that the men who visit her are not named, or that even her son and has husband are so reverentially referenced. This Mary hardly feels real except in her grief and anger. And maybe that's enough. The women in "The Blackwater Lightship" are angry and unable to articulate their dysfunctional relationships; in "Brooklyn" we are given a naive woman who never quite transcends that naivety. Men are the cause of these women's pain and restrictions, and he revisits this here. At the same time, his accumulation of detail, of minor notes to explore major themes, remains here, albeit sparingly. Toibin fans might well find this compelling. Looking from a far, here we see a novelist who has found a subject that almost perfectly fits in with his limitations; and in doing so fails to transcend them. A minor book, but given its critical acclaim, a major, if not unexpected disappointment.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Starts of Novels

Between 1995 and 2002 I completed seven novels. Along the way, I've started quite a few more: and more recently, around 2008, I finished an 8th, though at under 30,000 words I guess that's a novella.

I just discovered the manuscript of my first one - written when  I was 23-24. I didn't know how to write a novel (who does?) but I'd got an idea, and reckoned that if I wrote 12 chapters, 5000 words each I'd be close to finishing one. It ended up around 75,000 words, pretty much the longest thing I've ever written.

There's was a prologue that I added later - and I hate prologues - but it began simply, with an old man, Joshua Cathar (I've always been one for names that are a bit "leading") walking out one morning from his home (which we soon find out is a caravan.) At the same time, a younger man is opening up the newsagents, taking in the papers and organising the paper boys. It was all written in a slightly convoluted third person.

My second novel had a slightly different structure. A man wakes up, and misses something. His old dog, who usually sleeps beside him, has sloped off. It turns out not to be a good sign. Its again early morning, and he drives down to where he grew up. The novel then alternates between past and present - third person past, first person present. This book was shortlisted for the Lichfield Prize in 1995 and made me think I should take this writing seriously.

However, the next book took on board the "readers report" from the 1995 prize which criticised, I think, the dual narrative as being unecessary. I tried to write something very straight. Its an awful book, little shy of 50,000 words, but with nothing to recommend it other than some competent writing. It begins in as nondescript a way as possible in the office of a Midlands' engineering firm.

I knew I wanted to write something longer, more serious, wider ranging - and had applied to do an M.A. The novel I wrote on that course starts in a particular time and place - on Hungerford Bridge across the Thames on the afternoon of the election in 1997. The novel ebbs and flows like the river, and ends on the riverbank six months later. (Structure's always been important to me.) Another leading name -: the lead character, Adam Challis, and though its 3rd person its a localised one, as we rarely stray from his point of vision.

Whilst I waited for that to get published or rejected (the latter), I entered - and was shortlisted for - the Lichfield Prize again. This time with a sort of comedy. This, my fifth novel, had a first person female narrator, but actually had several different sections that were in different styles and tenses.

Around the same time - but I think afterwards - I wrote what was probably my first non-realistic novel, again a short one - and this was done in best part of three months - and all takes place on a single day (as my debut had.) In this case, a man arrives in a particular environment and his arrival upsets the balance, leading to a day of escalating chaos.

Number 7, and the last one for a few years, was an experimental montage - 250 individually titled sections, almost like a non-fiction miscellany - and not obviously connected to each other. Was it even a novel? Perhaps, perhaps not....  I'd reached the end of something I think.

The eighth novel - a novella, like my second, began, as you are never supposed to, with a man waking up. This time the missing body in his room isn't his beloved dog, but his wife who has gone to American for a conference. In the week that follows his life unravels. A dark comedy, I guess, and again 3rd person.

So I'm not sure what any of this proves - other than that I go back to my old tropes (maybe if any had been published I'd have tried harder to differentiate.). I think, though you can start a novel with a good line, (my 6h begins: "There were two deaths on Badger Farm that Tuesday, not including the dog"), I've seen beginnings as just that, a chance to set out time and place, and character. Though my stories have sometimes been elliptical my longer works rarely have. Thinking about them I can't help but notice that I do like structure. Two take place in a single day; one over a specific week. All are in the present, (or the present at the time of writing), though several have flashbacks of sorts.  

I'm trying to write something new; after a few false starts. I'm not sure the beginning matters that much, though its what sticks with you. It helps if the writing is good of course; and maybe the first chapter rather than the first line is what matters. And as I've been singularly unsuccessful in publishing any of them, perhaps I'm just getting it all hopelessly wrong anyway. 

Albums of the Year 2013

It feels like its been a bit of a better year for music. There's lots of interesting stuff coming out from various sub genres, yet with enough crossover to make them hits. There's lots of records I've not yet got round to or only just heard (Chvrches, Kanye, Parquet Courts etc.) so I'm sure that this list would change with time. However for now....

1. Wakin' on a Pretty Day - Kurt Vile
I loved Vile's previous album, so rushed out to get the new one. Whilst "Smoke Rings for My Halo" might have been a little shambolic in parts, "Wakin' on a Pretty Day" feels like this cult artist's coming of age - his "Soft Bulletin". At times he channels both American and UK80s  indie (there are songs that remind me of beautiful underachievers Felt) and I guess there's a shared "slacker" vibe about both sides. Its a very summery album as a result and the title track in particular is a languid masterpiece.

2. The Flower Lane - Ducktails
Also recording as Best Coast, this is another of those indie artists who decided to up their game during the year. "The Flower Lane" is so eighties it could be seen with a mullet watching "The Breakfast Club" at a drive in; but in the pick 'n' mix of contemporary music there are worse place to go looking for inspiration. In parts, its just lovely, pristine songwriting, augmented with a bright pop production - the kind of "pop" that never made the charts of course.

3. Tomorrow's Harvest - Boards of Canada
I've only recently discovered the joys of this Scottish electronic band. The world was waiting for their new album and such things have a habit of disappointing. How come I keep playing it then? An instrumental record that keeps withholding its secrets only to spill them out slowly through repeat plays; its a beautiful suite of warm analogue electronica. That it sounds like the music I was trying to write in the late 80s/early 90s doesn't really harm its charm either.

4. Random Access Memories - Daft Punk
Another old band returning on form - first with the awesome Chic-assisted single "Get Lucky" but the whole album is a different matter... a homage of sorts to the seventies - its properly conceived as a double album, and its not just disco that is remembered, but AOR like the Carpenters. A strange hybrid in some ways, of an anonymous dance duo and a range of more upfront collaborators, its been a massive record, and deservedly so. Play it start to finish like you used to.

5. Silence Yourself - Savages
Certain records - Savages, Daft Punk - seem to have been listed in most end of year round ups. Its hard to realise that Savages' debut only came out in 2013. Its a classy but dense remaking of early 80s angst but with a very contemporary sheen. If it occasionally recalls Siouxsie of "The Scream" and "Join Hands" that's no bad thing. A proper teenage debut album to love and cherish with not a note out of place. Seeing them live later in the year, the theatrical sense they bring to their dramatic songs was undiminished live, but I wonder where they will go from here: as the pop element to some of their melodies is here nicely meshed with the intense post-punk guitar barrage. Flung into being festival favourites, lets only hope they can continue to mine these dark strains.

6. Push the Sky Away - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Cave's 21st century has been remarkable - yet was Grinderman the equivalent of the 50 year old taking a younger girlfriend and buying a Porsche? The current Mrs. Cave is on the cover of this lovely record, dancing nakedly, abstractedly. Cave seems to have negotiated through the troubles of a late career artist - with a suite of songs that seem abstractedly connected. He still takes on characters, but is also happy to laugh a little at himself, writing about his new home town Brighton, as valid a subject as his gothic midwest. With some of his best recent songs, and a band that are more a setting for his muse (with multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis to the fore) it may not be his most varied album, but its one of his most playable ones.

7. Girls Like Us - PINS
Manchester's youngest and most exciting band have forged an nteresting route to their debut through self released cassettes, well distributed videos, and showcase gigs. Signed to Bella Union, they are darker, more raucous, and less formed in some ways than most of that label's roster. Their debut album captures, just about, their live energy. A proper album to cherish, its both immediate and reluctant to give up its secrets - very much a debut, but in a year when other debuts (e.g. the Palma Violets) didn't manage to quite pull off the energy of their singles, PINS felt like a band captured to vinyl just in time.

8. Re-Mit - The Fall

The Fall's annual missive is probably their strongest since the double header of The Real New Fall LP/Fall Heads Roll. This line up have been around for a while now, but on their 2nd Cherry Red record, they offer a rumbling art-rock canvas that's less about individual songs, and more about the sound - a strangely modern amalgam that is occasionally as stunning as anything that will come from much-acclaimed Pitchfork bands.

9. The Next Day - David Bowie

His first album for years, and his best since "Outside" (though some said "Scary Monsters"), its beautifully song and - by Visconti - beautifully produced. I'm not sure it has the unity of his best albums as the songs seem to come from different parts of his career, but his songwriting is as strong as its been for years, and notwithstanding that the recently reclusive Bowie had reappeared, it appears a late career highlight that came out of his own artistry rather than requiring the reimagining by outside hands that so often accompanies these reboots.

10. Fascination - Gramme
I saw these at Sounds from the Other City. A Prince-inspired blend of electronics, funk and soul they have a liveliness that is anything but nostalgic and their debut album, though not perfect, offers a pretty seamless 40 minutes of contemporary soul that has much more than so many recent autotuned R&B acts. If R&B felt like it had lost its mojo in 2013, as every boy band or reality TV star stole its production ideas, the idea of pulling back a bit and remembering what makes a good dance act in the first case seems only appropriate.

Special mentions

Blurred Lines (single) - Robin Thicke; since vilified for Thicke being, well, a bit thick, when it comes to justifying his sexually risque lyrics and video, I'm still mesmerised by this Marvin Gaye inspired pop classic.  In a run during the spring we saw this, Daft Punk, Icona Pop and John Newman top the UK charts - showing that pop music can sometimes still find enough new moves to inspire. At the other end of the sales spectrum Manchester friend's Stranger Son and Suzuki Method both came out with exciting E.P.s/mini albums towards the latter part of the year.

Great year for reissues: I'm still unpacking the goodness of the Jesus and Mary Chain vinyl boxset; wonderful stuff and enjoying reissues like Four Tet's "Rounds" which I missed first time round. Not forgetting the 6-CD boxset of Waterboys "Fisherman's Blues" a rare opportunity to look at the genesis of a classic album.

A few albums just miss my top 10, My Bloody Valentine, Queens of the Stone Age, Young Knives and These New Puritans in particular.

Sunday, December 15, 2013



I daren't look back at my plans a year ago. The year began with fretting over whether to put in for redundancy (I didn't in the end), plans to go to Australia and start househunting (both of which were scuppered by an emergency eye op in June) - and a sense that something had to change in 2013. Well, nothing much did. Same job, same flat etc. etc.

Creatively its also been a difficult year - I've not been particularly outgoing regarding my poetry this year, reading in Manchester when asked, but not a lot of it. I've been putting together a collection of sorts, and over Christmas that's something I hope to concentrate on. Where it will end up who knows? My previous publisher Salt, gave up on single poet collections this year for a start. I had things published in two lovely small press publications. Two poems in "Sculpted: Poetry of the NW", and a story in "Unthology 4". I'd probably not expected to do too much music after last year's abundance, but I finished my 5th album since 2007 in the summer, "Kleptomania", which is available to download now.

I'll do a proper "albums" of the year over the holiday period - I'm not sure I've read enough new stuff to do a "books" of the year; the best poetry I found in magazines, pamphlets and at live events - thinking of Sarah Crewe's "Flick Invicta", the "Dear World" anthology, visual poetry sites M58 and Verse Kraken, ZimZalla's "Alternative Anniversaries" by Leanne Bridgewater; and more conventionally published books such as Melissa Lee Houghton ("Beautiful Girls"), Instant-flex 718 by Heather Phillipson, Chloe Hooper's "The Engagement", and Olivia Laing's literary biography "The Trip to Echo Spring." 

And couldn't resist sharing this link. Its 100 years ago today that Ezra Pound contacted James Joyce and kickstarted literary modernism. Thanks for Ted Gioia for this piece in the Daily Beast. 


Thinking about 2014 I think we can look forward (!) to plenty of World War I anniversaries - as well as the ongoing list of modernism anniversaries.

A friend has started a new magazine for fiction and poetry, here in Manchester, and is not only looking for submissions, but will be paying successful ones. Confingo Magazine will come out in the Spring - and he'd be happy to get some more submissions over the Christmas period.

Other friends have curated the first ever exhibition of William Burroughs photography which should be a January highlight at the Photographer's Gallery. 

The current exhibition at Castlefield Gallery looks at Radical Conservatism, in its many possible forms - and if you don't get over immediately, then make sure you attend the final weekend symposium at the start of February.

Right, with that, I'd better get writing my Xmas cards. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

If This is Home by Stuart Evers

Tried to avoid overt spoilers, though some of the key plot is given away on the cover of the hardback anyway, but its impossible to review without giving some of it away. 

His first novel, "If this is home", follows Stuart Evers well received short story collection "Ten Stories About Smoking". Beginning in an enigmatic, intrigueing Las Vegas where "Josef Novak", is helping his friend O'Neill close a property deal, the shimmering unreality of "Valhalla" - the complex they are trying to sell units in to rich businessmen - is a facade which begins to unravel as Joe's past begins to intrude back into his life. For the last ten years or more he has lived in New York, his identity a fake one, O'Neill the friend he made shortly after arriving for got drunk with him and helped him out with his new life. There's a book in his possession where every aspect of Joe's life is mapped out; a fiction - a necessary one because Joe Novak has been successfully forgetting his past.

In Vegas, as he gets more and more distant from the job he has to do - and more appalled by the behaviour of the men who they are trying to please in this glorified Time Share scheme - the past begins to intrude. For Joe came to New York from England, specifically Wilmslow in the North West, as a teenager running away from a tragedy that took place in 1990, involving his girlfriend Bethany - that year's carnival queen. As the present breaks apart and he is reminded of the violence that led him to leave the UK, he turns up again in the North West, booking in at a provincial pub-hotel and begins to slowly track his way back through half memories of a life that he had deliberately hid away for over a decade. Flitting between memories of that year, with Bethany getting ready to be a reluctant carnival queen (she prefers to wear a Big Black t-shirt and Dr. Marten boots, but agrees for her father's sake), and memories of his arrival in New York, he sits in his hotel halfway between his new identity and his old one - Mark Wilkinson.

Evers is an engaging writer, from the baroquely fantastic Vegas chimera, to the more down-to-earth recolllections of a dreary but nonetheless searching teenage life in a provincial English town, he deftly moves between worlds. There's a slightly fantastical nature, even to his more mundane recollections, as Bethany's memory is a  palpable one to Mark, edging him ever closer to unravel the memories of what happened that terrible day. In some ways, Evers successfully joins two common tropes of contemporary British fiction: the lost anti-hero, a post-adolescent who is unable to actively change the world as it happens to him - caught in his own neuroses; and on the other hand the novel of secrets withheld - like "The Gathering" or "Atonement", held back from the reader through the author's sleight of hand. In some ways the novel is the inevitable debut - returning to adolescence through the fog of memory; but unable to process it. For Wilkinson, like the hero of the New York set Netherland, is adrift, awaiting for something to be resolved but not quite knowing what it might be.

Its interesting how conventional the novel is in some ways. The language is one of filtered-memory, the Paul Morley style Sunday supplement reminisce of dank Northern towns at one remove; the bad pub food; the low expectations of working class youth. Mark was a dreamer because he had to be: both him and Bethany had broken homes; but the women it was who were missing, not the men; and this pain of divorce and separation - of adolescence in a not-so-distant world, recalls David Mitchell's Black Swan Green for instance. In some ways the Vegas chapter at the start feels like a tacked on short story - it has a different timbre to the rest of the novel; and the move from NYC to Vegas creates a complexity of location which feels a little contrived. New York is the place where you go for your dreams - as Bethany and Mark had planned - but when those dreams couldn't come true, what then? Maybe the fake facades of Vegas. In many ways, much of this is a device. It covers similar ground to Gwendoline Riley's recent "Opposed Positions" but has a more mechanistic approach to its material; here its a life remembered rather than a life lived. I felt there wasn't enough made of the genuniely interesting decision to give a character two lives - seen through Mark/Joe's own perspective we never get the sense that either is particularly real. The denouement when it comes is less about surprising us but lining up the past again so it makes sense. We are all touched by our inactions as well as our actions.

Its an enjoyable read, carefully structured, and with some of the pace of a psychological thriller like Tana French or Kate Atkinson; yet its also a much more homely book: something of the suburban provincial life (Evers is from Macclesfield) that many non-urban British writers share. In this, the prose doesn't really find a way out from the cliches - it almost denies the documentary impulse that would bring this particular past more to life. For Wilkinson had no love for his hometown - and in returning the only conclusion is a very contemporary one: that dreams are just that, dreams. "If this is home" is an appropriate title - for Wilkinson is himself a chimera abroad, but in Wilmslow, he's a missing man. Set, deliberately, I think, just before the internet it relies on that pre-internet world where its easy to disappear. Its not in any way a comforting book, but he deals with his dark material with a lightness of touch that is similar to, say Steven Hall.

For a novel that has different places and different identities it settles for far too much of its length into the most comfortable of both: the provincial past, and one wonders about the deux ex machina that got us here? Was it really necessary? At the end, even though there's a potential love interest in the enigmatic Ferne (all the female characters are somewhat enigmatic), there's a sense of containment that would seem to make more sense in a short story, but perhaps lacks the necessary bravery one wants from a novel.  I doubt most contemporary readers will be disappointed, yet like Zadie Smith's "The Autograph Man", the emotionally-limited male lacks possibilities, whether in an exotic or mundane location. In her essay comparing "Remainder" and "Neverwhere" as two sides for the contemporary novelist, I'd say that Evers book fits bang in the middle, showing how awkward that dichotomy is to sustain.

There's an interesting piece on his blog on the role of music in writing his work - with a soundtrack to the novel itself.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Writing's Nationality

A few years ago, if asked, I'd have said, that to all intents and purposes I was an American writer, albeit with an English accent. The writers I read were American, my influences were American, and in many ways my style was far more American than it was English. Is this about being derivative or absorbtion of influence? I'm not sure. But as no one has ever said, blood is thicker than ink; and the blood will out eventually.

Yet these days I am an English writer, most definitely, with traces of an American accent - is there a flip point?My "American" voice was derived from Burroughs, Mailer, McInerney, Acker, Easton Ellis, Roth, Fitzgerald, Faulkner...and in poetry, Williams, Eliot, Pound, Plath, Ashbery - not from any real-world America. (Though my one visit to America in 1995 let loose a torrent of American-located stories.) DeLillo, that most American of writers was a bit of a tipping point as well - I saw that "White Noise" was the kind of book I wanted to write, but having found that, I shied away from imitative style: on the one hand taking something from DeLillo, as I do from all my favourite writers, on the other, noticing the alienness of some of his earlier novels; there's a fast-speaking schtick that I could revel in, but also, fail utterly to ever raid for my own usage. Similar with Roth, as tempting as those long sentence structures in "American Pastoral" were, they sounded limp and in authentic set in Manchester or London. The kind of prose I liked wasn't necessarily the kind of prose I now wanted to write. At some point I "lost" the American accent of some of my fiction -  or maybe found that it no longer served my purpose.

Other tipping points were European and South American writers; in the late 90s I read Borges, Saramago, Houllebecq, Chamoiseau for the first time; here was a different sensibility - more philosophical, and it appealed to the kind of subject matter  I was now writing. Then again, with the internet you begin to hear a kind of globalised English prose, the first person present tense of the blogger or the Facebook commentator, and its hard to extract your brain from those rhythms, particularly when you're being - as maybe I was - a cod American writer.

So at some point my writing changed in timbre, and its maybe shed affectation, or perhaps American influence, which was so important to me during my 20s and 30s, slips away in the new world. More recently - though I still read American novels, I've seen a falling off in what I'd have once called "American style" - I find acclaimed novelists like Frantzen less brazen, more atuned to a global speech bubble; a CNN kind of world-lit lite; that crosses borders. Its rare now to have to adjust your filter to a particular American accent in prose, just as its rare to have to adjust filter to regional variations on these islands. And maybe America has changed culturally. Roth and Bellow, like Scorsese or Coppola were artists in a newish land, 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants, but seeing America through their neighbourhood, their community, their city. The "new" in American letters which was a constant excitement during the 20th century, is perhaps not so obvious now - or diluted somewhat.

Perhaps it was always going to be this way; that I wrote in a kind of American-noir style because I was looking for my own style, or rather because I hadn't yet discovered the mechanics of what I was doing, though I could see the look I was trying to achieve. Poetry may be partly to blame, since, apart from brief flirtations with Ashbery, its harder, much harder, to put on a different voice in that medium: everything - voice, language, tone, style - fights against it. Yet I've also found it harder these last few years to write a longer prose, so wondering if the free style of American language was easier for me to work with than our sometimes stilted and class bound British prose? You see how difficult it is to conjure up a British avant garde, or an English vernacular that doesn't sound parochial. Thin prose is often the result of those who are attempting to avoid the cliches. Our English novelists aren't much help. Barnes and McEwan can't exactly become stylistic influences, whilst the Amisian strand, which - I guess - I was following with my Americanisms, works best for a certain heightened comedy.  My own fascination with the clear, lyrical prose of, say, Bruce Chatwin, is a difficult place to go without his gifts, but is not to be dismissed. The strange circuitry of writers like Mieville, Peace, Barker and Mantel highlights that there are other ways - however hard fought - to make your way through the wilderness. That said, I miss my old American self, fake as it was; yet hope that like a British band apeing the blues, something unique might come from the transformation.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Poems and Buildings

A couple of weeks ago I moved back into the refurbished Town Hall Extension in Manchester. The inside offices are as you would expect, open plan, modern, with meeting room "pods" and glass fronted meeting rooms; but the building itself has been kept in its 1930s glory, a mixture of the functional and the grand as befits the age. Clanking up the stone steps, or admiring the municipal fittings, I couldn't help but think that its not unlike a lot of poetry of the thirties: serious, austere, certainly grand, but not particularly ostentatious. Its a building that wears its craftsmanship lightly, but is proud of itself, very like the poetry of Auden, Isherwood and Spender. It is serious in intent - this is clearly a civic building - and though there is room for ornament there is no room for frippery.

It got me thinking how alike the poetry and buildings of an era might be. I can't quite think of an architect-poet, though we might co-opt William Morris to our argument in some sense: but it does seem that they often parallel each other. Post-1918 buildings and poems both seem to be breaking free from their early 20th century moorings; ambitious, modern, sometimes baroque, and often over-reaching, the poetry is as spacious as a 1920s house. For the Chrysler building is as monumental as "The Wasteland". The fifties see a poetry of the confessional that finds its echoes, at least in part, in the American kitchen, the American diner. A public-homeliness that strips away the stoic blandishments of the immediate post-war years, and revels in new forms of intimacy. The sixties is both gaudy and relaxed; whilst by the seventies we're seeing post-modern buildings alongside L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, equally brazen in their facade, but perhaps rotten at the core in some way as they struggle with the social divisions of that age. Bty the 1980s poetry is as mixed use as the modern mall; as quick and easy to understand as a McDonalds. Get to this century and we're no longer building anything iconic - everything is an accumulation of styles and purpose, a bit eco here, a bit Scandinavian here, a bit workspace over there: and maybe our poetry is equally pick and mix, but cramped by too little attention, like a new estate, going out to poetry readings as there's not room at home to cook more than a take away....

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Finding Voice in a Cacophony

"Its important to find your voice" - "one day you will find your voice" - "when you find your voice you will stick to it" - I'm wondering about "voice" in poetry; for, at the latest count, there were 6,532,391 poets currently writing. Amidst this cacophony how can you find "a voice"? Do the voices merge? I wonder how many distinctive poetry voices there are: and given how difficult distinctiveness is, how many manage to stick to their voice once they've found it? Les Murray is unmistakeable, of course, but maybe his booming "voice" has deafened us to all the other Australians? Ashbery is unmistakeable, but has he spread himself over a whole block of Ashbery-like ironic voices so that no others can be heard?

Whenever you have a collection or a collective "generation" it seems that the distinctions between poets are removed; and instead we have a commonality. In such a way, an orthodoxy develops, so that other voices don't fit in easily, a bit like trying to hear a Sebadoh record in between the other songs on mainstream radio. Imagine, if you can, how it must be to be a Northern Irish experimentalist? Can they even exist when Irish poetry has so much about voice? And as we see more and more citizens of the world - hyphenate poets, born one place, developed another, educated another, residenced another, you wonder about how that translates or transfers. Occasionally I'll read a British poet in "Poetry" and wonder whether their more quotidian style is nothing of the sort; just my familiarity with it. That said, would an Americanised English poet get very far - like an English rock and roll band trying to break America and never managing to even get their records all released there.

And what if part of why you write is not to find your voice, but to "do the police in different voices", as Eliot's first title for the Wasteland would have it. Are we less authentic as a result? And are we then trapped in persona as much as a long-forgotten Browning poem or one of Pound's Personae? Yet voice is, I think, wrapped up in language, particularly in poetry. In prose, I think that there are different lexicons that you can call on - depending on what you are trying to say - but in poetry we are already struggling with two voices, the one we hear ourselves (our inward voice, if you like) and the one that we are listening to (the outward voice, perhaps.) Depending on voice gives us challenges that our poetic resources only partly address.Have we even a shared language these days? And when we are caught between the competing cadences of the modern media hubbub and our own (ageing) inner monologue, do we get caught as much as earlier poets have got caught between "high" and "low" speech.

Hearing or reading a melliflous Heaney you struggle to imagine him talking about much of our technocratic presence; but then again, do we expect our poets to avoid subjects that are not easily accented? Safer, I think, to choose a middle-voice, some mid-Atlantic equivalence, that can relish both the lyricism and the stentorianism of contemporary English; allow for quiet passages and loud choruses perhaps. And unless you're Geoffrey Hill, avoid the higher registers of the King James Version. In a post-pulpit age, English becomes several languages, of an internationalised version that is easiest to the ear in an American accent; but which will avoid anything too flowery (or too Latin.)

No wonder experimental poets are drawn to sound works - vocalisations offering more scope to escape, not the inherent meaning of our native tongue, but its dead on the page nature. Our poetic voice is a way of avoiding as well as escaping history; but we find our voice sometimes at a peril to our facility with the language; are we drawing the outlines more boldly as we can't risk the colouring in blurring the lines?

And if your poem stands out amongst all the others, will it get pulled from the playlist? Better if when you're reading a few pages of a magazine and you come across your own words and hardly recognise them - or rather, have an echo of who that person was/is - without being entirely convinced that it is/was you at all.