Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Height of Summer

A while ago, I was talking to my friend Natalie about how technological and musical advances were intertwined, and how it constituted a secret life of the synthesizer, where electronic music would crop up in unexpected places ("Here Comes the Sun", "Innervisions") and how technological advances would create unexpected turns in music (house music, Rihanna's "Umbrella"). Anyway, she asked me to contribute an article to her always fascinating zine, "The Shrieking Violet" and I'm pleased to say the new issue with my piece in is now out - to buy at Cornerhouse or Piccadilly Records in Manchester - or to download and read online here. Even better, there's a launch party at Castlefield Gallery's late opening on Thursday 14th August. And that's an evening to make a night of it - as a new exhibition of called "The Use and Abuse of Books" is taking place at Anthony Burgess Foundation. Linking New Worlds, Savoy Books and recent art object/magazine Corridor 8, it should be a fascinating show...and timely reminder of another strand of the NW avant garde.
I've often thought that part of Mark E. Smith and the Fall's appeal is their tapping into some deep gothic horric in the city - a Lovecraftian undercroft that echoes with what Will Self reminded us last week, was the city as being built on slave labour, Manchester-Salford as the 19th century Dubai.  As we see another lining up of statement buildings, each one as heavily facaded as the fake sets that the tourists see in the Coronation Street tour (or the SF/Western "Westworld") its worth reminding ourselves of other counter cultures. My synthesizer essay squeezes in under 2000 words, but it could easily have been five times the many connections I left out.
This week as the news is nightly witness to other horrors, including the nightly bombings in Gaza, criticism of which Israel seems deafer than ever to, the ominous anniversaryising of the first world war (in the aftermath of which some of the catatrophic middle eastern borders were first drawn up), takes place; heavily mythologised (often in an exemplary way, to be fair) on the BBC and in the newspapers.  More intrigueing is a picnic as part of the "My Poppy" project - a digital arts project developed by Lets Go Global - which takes place on Sunday afternoon 2pm-4pm.  I'm hoping to combine this with the vinyl and book fair at Stockport market place on Sunday - so I may be heavily laden if the last one is anything to go by. (Note to self: finish listening to what I bought last time!)
The day before - and to bring us a bit full circle - I hope to get to Francis McKee's talk at Castlefield Gallery looking at an "open source" approach to the arts. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

It's Booker Time

Having belatedly opened up the Booker Prize to American authors this year, this year's Booker controversy was.... that there was no controversy. A few raised eyebrows that Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch" didn't make a list that found room for established younger Americans like Joshua Ferris.  A mild demurrance at the gender ratio (10 men, 3 women) which should keep the Women's Prize for fiction safe from extinction for another decade; and a question mark over whether we'd just replaced one lot of overseas writers (the Commonwealth) with another (Americans.) As for big names missing... they found room for the new Howard Jacobsen, whose last book "The Finkler Question" was a surprising (and somewhat second rate) Booker winner. The truth is that "the big names" aren't big anymore.... its a long time since an Amis or McEwan was up their with their best work and seems increasingly unlikely that those writers will have a late career renaissance.

Bear in mind that "Money", Amis's masterpiece, was his fifth novel, and look whose on the longlist, the brilliant David Mitchell with his fifth novel "The Bone Clocks". That his brilliant "Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" wasn't shortlisted still remains a mystery to me. Ali Smith is at an equal career point. These are now among our leading novelists, not the older generation. It's very hard to know who should have been on the list and wasn't because of the usual quixotic nature of the Booker timetable. By my reckoning five books are yet to be published including Jacobsen, Smith and Mitchell. Silly me, as a reader, thinking I might try out this year's hot novels on my summer holidays. Maybe longlist sales are so slight that the publishing industry doesn't care - the main purpose of a longlisting is to have a line to put on the cover of the paperback and a bit of an in with booksellers. I guess I've not yet got round to last year's Charlotte Mendelsson, Richard House or Alison Mcleod anyway.

There's a silly editorial in the (paywalled) Times which in the absence of controversy brings up the old saw that genre writers should be considered for prizes as well. Clearly they'd booked the editorial spot and then had no controversy to fill it with!

With two of the most astute contemporary literary lovers, academic Sarah Churchwell and critic Erica Wagner on the panel I'm sure this year's list will both literary and readable -

I would even say that this is probably the first genuine Booker list to be a truly 21st century list. Smith, O'Neill, Ferris, Mitchell and Powers are the writers that you'd expect to be coming into their prime, whilst its good to see Neel Mukherjee, who I met in Norwich a few years ago, making the leap from his enjoyable debut, to prize-contender with his new novel.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

This Week in Manchester

I attended the 24:7 theatre festival last night. This fringe theatre festival is a compact, vibrant few days of creative new work. Its difficult to know what to go to - and I got the times wrong of the show I was planning to go to so had to change at the last minute. The show I attended "Anonymity", I cannot recommend enough. Gareth George's play sees two strangers working at either side of a white line working in the basement of an anonymous building. They both have secrets - are unknowable - and the job that they are doing they have only the vaguest understanding what it is. There are elements of Magnus Mills's "Restraint of Beasts" though its more obvious theatrical precursor is Pinter's early work "Dumb Waiter". Like that we are in a world of hidden motives, lies and conspiracies. When the woman from upstairs comes down to see if they might help her out, the story becomes even more sinister. If it doesn't all quite add up, the three actors are great at heightening the tension of a terse, funny script. There's a sense of our contemporary milieu where everyone is trackable in the desire of these three characters to stay anonymous.

As well as 24:7 there's the  Manchester Jazz Festival on all week in Albert Square, so plenty of opportunities to stay out if the sunshine keeps the rain away. (And as ever in Manchester, we make sure our outdoor events are still under cover.)

Friday I'm at a sold out Will Self talk at MMU's Holden Gallery, accompanying the excellent "Urban Psychosis" exhibition.

On Monday after next, the Wolf Magazine, one of the country's better poetry magazines, is coming up to  Manchester for a free reading at the  Anthony Burgess Foundation. Book (free) tickets here

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Writer in a Political World

There was a revival of a quotation by Marxist-theorist Terry Eagleton,  That "there is no
eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life". The quote - originally from 2007 - perhaps coincided with the falling away of a generation of writers who were also political activists, or activists who were also acclaimed writers. Since then we have lost two political writers old enough to recall the Second World War, Lessing and Pinter. I suspect the firebrands that Eagleton missed were always in short supply anyway. The quote was recalled by John Pilger, in an interesting piece on the way our news media is increasingly becoming an unreliable source.  Though there remain plenty of journalists who also write fiction, its more often the celebrated novelist who gets asked their opinion, whether it Pullman on humanism, Amis on terrorism or Rowling on social issues.

Many of our best contemporary writers are explicitly addressing the complex world we are in - A.L. Kennedy, China Mieville, David Mitchell, David Peace, Nicola Barker, Tom McCarthy for instance - though maybe only Mieville is as equally known for his political viewpoints. 

The disconnect between writers and politics is, I think, a real one, in many ways. English literature is backwards looking, even in a poltically charged novel like "Wolf Hall", and whilst subsequent poet laureates, Motion and Duffy, have spearheaded left-leaning political campaigns, they've done it against a background of increasingly conventional writing. Late period Pinter turned out small, polemical poems that had none of the nuance of "The Birthday Party" or "Betrayal", yet to be politically engaged is surely to be direct. Its the politicians who mangle language ("Spare room subsidy" or "bedroom tax"?)

I've rarely known a period when there are so many writers who are political. Almost all the younger poets I know are to some degree or other activists - whether contributing to campaigns and campaign anthologies such as "Poems for Pussy Riot", or running politically inclined readings.

Our "major" writers are part of an establishment that may not be as well off or as politically connected as Gore Vidal in America, but are definitely part of that very British (or very London) "clique" that revolves around Radio 4, the broadsheets and the Arts Council. We've always been sniffy about the arts in Britain, so that though we are happy to place a banker at the heart of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, writers are expected to be mere entertainers or informers.  I wait for Simon Armitage to be made a minister for business for instance. When Ian McEwan was interviewed a while back he talked about how for a brief moment he thought he could somehow get to Tony Blair and convince him of the folly of the war in Iraq. His own Iraq folly, the novel "Saturday" managed to skirt around its major event, the Stop the War march, to concentrate on a middle class drama of stranger-danger. Robert Harris, a writer who was closer to Blair at one point, damned him in his novel "The Ghost." Harris, who has written about the machinations of power in ancient Rome, could recognise the contemporary parallels.

But if you are someone like myself, who is struggling to get any recognition as a writer - then however political your work might be - its not likely to be a big selling point. I felt my poetry collection "Playing Solitaire for Money" had its fair share of politics (walk on parts for Saddam Hussein and the Taliban), but because I also write about other stuff, it often gets ignored.

The world moves on so fast that the writer can be left behind - however engaged. Simply binaries that sustained political writers in the West since at least the 1930s, have all but disappeared. The writers I listed above are humanists above all else, though the explicit story of Peace's Red Riding novels is the corruption of the great British police force. Domestic drama is becoming stranger than fiction, as a cavalcade of 1970s light entertainers are convicted of sex offences. It appears that Malcolm Maclaren, Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols were after all the good guys, not the moral turpitude that the establishment had them as at the time.

The two terrible events of this week - the escalation of the bombings in Gaza (culminating - though that's probably the wrong word) in the killing of four boys playing on a beach, followed by yesterday's downing of a passenger jet by surface to air missiles fired from Ukraine - are the stuff of HBO drama. Jack Bauer must be on speed dial.

Would a writer dare interact with these scripts? Who are the good guys in a Ukraine where the far right have also been on the rise, as Russia goes back to the Soviet playbook. KGB Putin is no longer the statesman that we had hoped for a  few years a back, but a cold war villain. Funnily enough I have recently written stories about a U.S. drone in Afghanistan and about Putin, yet they're not in the shops yet (though the former will be published later in the year). I've always written about politicians, conspiracies, and issues, though I can't say that the publishing world has been biting my hand off to read or publish them.

More explicitly "left" artists - poets such as Keston Sutherland, Sean Bonney or John G. Hall - have done a good job of carving out a niche that provides a satisfactory art but with an unequivocal political intent - but of course, when Maxine  Peake revived Shelley's "Mask of Anarchy" last year in Manchester, what was notable (to me at least), was that the festival programmers hadn't gone looking for any modern Shelley's. Reading about the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigades, the artist and thinker in me, wonders whether the young Asian men going to fight in Syria should not be seen as terrorists but as the equivalents of Orwell, Hemingway, Laurie Lee and others who fought in Spain. Hard one, given the brutal medieval ideology that seems at the heart of some of these conflicts.

What we need more of, I think, is writing that has not a liberal western handwringing to it; or an inbuilt anti-American bias; but first hand experience of a world that we only see down the lens of TV or internet.

Manchester's Comma Press is about to publish "The Book of Gaza", latest in its series of city-based short stories. Here though, the writers and editor are not passive bystanders of world events, but as the tightening of the noose around the prison camp of Palestine continues, trapped within a territory that is currently being bombed. It may seem trite to try and promote a book on the back of a tragedy, but given that this book was commissioned and written when the conflict had gone off the front pages, I feel that if there's ever a time to read about Palestine now is the time. Whatever my thoughts on the crisis or the leadership of both Palestine and Israel, as a writer I know that any power I have rests not in my activism but in my words. There are times when words aren't enough.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Who needs an International Festival anyway?

Every two years Manchester doesn't have an international festival. I mention this because we're in one of those years and cultural Manchester must surely wonder what to do with itself? It doesn't have a problem of course - for blink, and you'd almost think this was a festival year. We've got a new Ryan Gander exhibition on at Manchester Art Gallery, a career retrospective of a still developing artist who studied on the interactive arts course at MMU. A "head to head" exhibition in parallel with this has just opened at Castlefield where newer emerging artists engage with Gander's work. I'll try and give a proper overview of both of these shows another time. On Friday, the latest show in the gem that is MMU's Holden Gallery opened - "Urban Psychosis" is a finely curated exhibition of works that consider the madness and oppression of the city. Rather than see the city as "smart" or a place that adds 15% to GDP, here the city is seen as a place where its inhabitants are captured citizens. It was great to see Gillian Wearing's early work "Dancing in Peckham" if only to smile at the slightly hazy definition of mid-90s video tape technology; whilst I was pretty blown away by the urban abstracts in Catherine Yass's work, and seeing one of Sophie Calle's urban instruction works here reminded me of the great retrospective of hers I saw last year. Well worth a visit - and I'll be back in a fortnight where (obviously) Will Self will be in conversation about the show and the theme.

If music is more your bag, then you might have found your way down to Castlefield Bowl for an exemplary 90 minutes by Pixies, or, the following evening by James. The previous week, I bumped into friends who were going to see some Steve Reich pieces performed at the Bridgewater Hall. Any of these would have been surely a highlight of an MIF year! With both the Manchester Jazz Festival and 247 Festival of new theatre due to start this month there is plenty - too much - going on every night almost. This week alone, I'm trying to fit in a Video Jam at Manchester Art Gallery as part of the Gander  programme on Thursday, with the Manchester Digital barbecue, and a drop in day of digital stuff at central library; whilst literary stuff in the city continues unabated - I missed "The Other Room" which clashed with the Gander opening; and last week's short story slam; last night's "Paradox" and will no doubt also miss this weeks Tales of Whatever.

We had a nice debate last summer about whether we were OD-ing on festivals and biennials (Liverpool's biennial opened a couple of weeks ago) and generally the artists in the room felt these things were a good thing for the city, both as audience and often providing some useful work or volunteering experiences. Yet we also felt that its near impossible to compete with the big shows - unlike London where everything is so spread out, and audiences might well be as well - in Manchester there is a bit of a finite audience, or rather that one audience might only rarely slip over and try something else. One problem with DIY culture is that it becomes just that - every little thing becoming its own mini-ecosystem. I don't think this is any more of a bad thing than having some of the international superstars and original new shows that MIF will bring us next year; but I wonder if there might be something more that could be done to bring it all together? Maybe a regular arts show or magazine.... just a thought. For now you have my blog, and the other ones in my sidebar.

If I'm not at any of these things don't worry, because in twitterspeak #amwriting. Being such an art scenester I do have to occasionally remind people that I sometimes have to disappear off to create some stuff. I've been finishing a couple of things off for submission, ploughing on with a longer piece which six months in has now got a structure and a direction of sorts, and after a bit of a drought, writing a number of poems.

(And by the way, in case you're wondering who needs an international festival? We do - but I'm glad that in the year's its not going on, there's no longer the summer art drought that we used to have. With both the Whitworth and Home opening in the next year, I suspect our next year without a festival will be even bigger.)

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Writing without Feedback

Sometimes, when we read about our favourite novels we think of them as being immutable works of art: and in some ways they are; as a book gets published it becomes generally the version that we'll read forever. But there are some notable exceptions of course. "Tender is the Night"was for a long time available in a re-ordered version, which is chronological. The "original" (which has now been restored in all available editions) is not without its structural problems, so you can perhaps understand why Fitzgerald's novel was messed around with. John Fowles spent a lot of time and energy rewriting "The Magus", though its so much a novel of its time, I doubt there will be many who compare both versions. Publishers have given us "Stephen Hero" as an earlier version of "Portrait of the Art as a Young Man" and at least two versions of "Lady Chatterley's Lover." Poets often chop and change their "selected" works throughout their career, and in the case of someone like Auden, change the poems themselves.

When you're writing without a publisher or agent on the horizon, to "second guess" what the market wants is a difficult job, and - especially in the case of a novel - a long book might still only receive a cursory glance. On the other hand much more experienced writers sometimes seem to be entirely unedited these days.

Looking back through some old work today - stories from around 2002 - I'm reminded that much of what I've written over the years has existed entirely without feedback. Sure, I did an M.A. in novel writing in 1998, and that novel was worked over - at least the first few chapters - by students and tutors on the course; but the final thing, though it got a reading and a mark came out of the door unchanged from the version I completed. At one point, I can't quite remember when, I restructured a couple of chapters but that's all. It is, for all its faults, all my own work.

More recently I've been in a writing group and its helped chivvy me along and make me aware of things such as perspective in the novel I'm writing. Its given me some ideas - though perhaps reading the other writers' work intently is what gives you more ideas (not that their books are the same, just you can learn from other's works in progress I think.) With poetry I realise that workshops and me are a bit of a dead loss. I take along poems that are not quite there, and I rarely manage to make something out of them despite the valid criticisms.

I think that I'm a just a writer who has a bit too clear an idea of what he wants to do, and its not that I don't accept - or need - feedback, just that the work doesn't easily give in to it. In some ways this is a real positive - as I can see, even in much older stuff, how strong my vision for a particular piece was. the downside, I think, is that you're always writing in a bit of a vacuum, that however many other writers' you read, you don't quite get a perspective on your own work. I guess its like when you hear your own voice for the first time: "do I really sound like that?" you say. Many years ago, sending a short novel off for a competition  I had only the vaguest idea that my writing was even competent. It got shortlisted, which meant the world to me - as until then only friends had ever read my work. At least I wasn't incomprehensible.

Reading old stories I find that generally I have put the work in (there are unfinished pieces where I haven't), but its hard to know where it was I was coming from at the time - and therefore would be hard to rewrite them now. Checking things out, I've written over a hundred short stories, only a few of which have been published. What does that great wave of "unpublished" stories mean? I say "unpublished" but not necessarily "unread" - I used to hand them round to friends for commentary. Though not, I think, for feedback. It always pleased me that my stories were generally seen as readable. Occasionally I'd write something a little more experimental or different and these stories always seemed to get better feedback than I'd expected.

Yet I think there's a difference between this, and getting things published. I think there's a particular difficulty in sending things off to magazines and competitions - whether poems or fictions - you need to consider the amount of submissions they'll get. They are looking for reasons not to publish you, as much as to publish you. I used to be quite good at this tightrope - but over the years, seem to have lost the knack.

I think there's an element of self-destruction in having written so much. I'm unlikely to want to rewrite what I've already written, or even go back to old themes. Yet however "good" an old story is - I don't think its likely I'd send it off to get published now. When I put together a poetry collection I did go back four or five years for some poems, and I was surprised how many unpublished ones I chose, often ahead of published ones. With stories I'm not so sure - maybe the feedback a story needs is the follow-up story? Styles change, subject matter changes, one's use of language changes.

Writing is a solitary pursuit of course, and often lasts a long time without an audience. "Greats" like Golding and Fowles and Kafka took a long time to get their work appreciated - and didn't always have a local reader either. Even someone like Joyce who was self-proclaiming (and being proclaimed) as a genius from an early age wrote "Dubliners" in something of a vacuum. I think the only reason we are able to write without feedback, fearlessly, believing in what we do, is because we're not entirely alone but carry with us the many books we've read and admired. Whether our peers or predecessors, these are the books we are most often in a dialogue with.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Poetry and/or Prose

I've always written both poetry and prose, but not always at the same time. When I was most definitely a fiction writer I continued to write poems sporadically, without really thinking too much about it. I've got poetry from when I'm 8 or 9, and I realise I've always written it, so that's nearly 40 years of doing something "sporadically".

Since 2010 when I had my Salt Modern Voices pamphlet published I've definitely been taking it more seriously, or rather, I've always taken it seriously, but been less circumspect about referring to myself (or being referred to) as a poet. It seems less fake than referring to myself as a novelist, when despite writing a few of them, I've never had one published.

Yet its still the case that I've very rarely just written poetry. I know a lot of poets who only write poems - or rather, they write plenty of prose in the form of reviews, Facebook postings, blogs, non-fiction etc. but never write short stories or other imaginative fiction. And quite a few of the fiction writers I know rarely if ever write poetry. Its also about inspiration. I've always read novels - but there are some poets who only read them rarely - and obviously some fiction writers who never once read poetry. You can pretty much go to any literary night in Manchester and there's a possibility that you might bump into me, but I can also pretty much tell you who might be at the poetry nights but not the fiction ones and vice versa. Strangely, even when there's a predilection for experimental work (such as the avant garde poetry night "The Other Room") quite a few of the poets I know from there have little knowledge of experimental or innovative fiction.

I've sometimes joked that poetry and prose are like the farmers and the cowmen in the song from the musical "Oklahoma", that they should be friends!

For myself, of course, I'm poet and prose writer in the same head, the same skin - and I don't think one has ever quite taken precedence over the other. Yet I do think that there are times when the space required for the one leads to less space for the other - and there definitely seem different parts of the brain, or at least different emotional skills, required for both. Oddly enough I've never felt that comfortable writing drama, which always feels much more of a craft than the other forms of writing - to my mind, its as far from writing lyric poetry as you can get, yet I know there's often a crossover between poets who write plays (and of course there's Shakespeare.) Ironic, as well, that though the workshopping of poems is commonplace I find it hard to do so - much harder than with fiction where, frankly, I always appreciate a different eye.

If maybe fiction is my head, poetry my heart, then like when you're young and falling for a friend, yuo sometimes muddle up the two. It might just be my artistic side, but I find there's often a little too much heart in my head, and maybe a little too much head in my heart, which probably explains why I'm drawn to both art forms. But though I'm drawn to them, I'm not one of those writers who essentially writes the same thing in different formats (e.g. always writing autobiography, or about nature.) I think its about different sensibilities: like wanting some music to dance to, and some music to cry to.

If I've been more poetry the last few years, I'm thinking I've shifted back a little in the last 9-12 months. I've certainly written more prose than for a good while - several short stories, as well as beginning a couple of thwarted novel ideas. Though I still take my notebook with me everywhere the poems dried up for a little while earlier this year. I think though I've always said I need more time to write prose, I need more emotional space to write poetry. I know plenty of poets in particular who use the art to help them through difficult times - but when the times get too difficult they just can't write.

I think for me things get a little confusing as I also write music - and it seems that it is that rather than poetry that usually disappears when I write prose - that's simply the time element I think. I pretty much stopped writing and recording music from 1999-2006 and that coincided with me writing lots and lots of fiction. Poetry as ever came and went, but was always there.

I suppose these musings aren't particular original and it might make a difference if I was particularly well known for one thing or the other - yet it seems in the cottage industry of contemporary literature, there's a lot more crossover than their used to be. I've heard of short story writers sending off poems, and poets dabbling with short stories. I guess the internet plays its part as the same sites that take on poetry often take on prose, and competitions from the MMU's prizes, to the Bridport, often have fiction and poetry strands. I don't think there's a common aesthetic between my poetry and fiction, other than a general tendency towards the urban and the contemporary (and a smattering of the surreal) - its not like I just write about one thing even in one of these genres. I've occasionally took a poem and rewrote it as fiction; and then there's the prose poem and flash fictions that sit uncomfortably in the hollow of the venn diagram between the two.

In my head, I'm currently a prose writer - but whether that means the heart is just taking a bit of time off from beating overindulgently, or a mature decision based on my ambitions for my work, I'm not sure I'm the best person to say. Call me a poet if you want to, it may turn out that I am one - if not this week, then maybe next.