Friday, June 19, 2015

On Expertise

Yesterday I was speaking at a symposium on "Big Data" as part of my work. Amongst the other presentations were ones on cosmology, mapping the human genome, and silicon chip design. It struck me, and not for the first time, how the vast majority of academics within STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering, maths - are almost always micro-specialists in their discipline, even if the knowledge they accumulate along the way is probably broader than that which those of us from arts, humanities and social sciences tend to have. The nature of contemporary science is that it particularly specialised, and that jobs and careers in these disciplines will tend to narrow individuals even further. This is not to decry their brilliance and experience, but the scarce resources that we have in terms of highly-qualified, highly-skilled researchers, have to be pushed into particular places. The cosmologist was not talking about astrophysics - the kind of thing that Brian Cox extolls about on his popular TV appearances - or computing, yet she clearly knew vast amounts about both; rather, her specialism was remarkably focussed - she was involved in projects looking at "mapping" what is invisible in the universe, through the lenses that are so much more advanced than even our famous Hubble telescope - a major collaborative project that is going to see an international telescope built in Santiago in Chile, a piece of kit with the beautiful droll name of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-Elt).

Collaboration is central to these major scientific efforts - not just been people in the same discipline (who may, at times, be competing for resources and jobs) but also between disciplines. Here she was talking at a conference with computer scientists, for it will be their algorithms and programming languages which will make sense of the images being beamed back of distant galaxies; whilst the technological challenges of building the telescope itself will - like the Large Hadron Collider - be the result of an immense amount of engineering know-how. Science works this way, an accumulation of knowledge, building on the shoulders of giants, so that every Nobel winner is really a figurehead for a particular sub-discipline or for many other names who have contributed to that breakthrough.

It made me wonder, as I gave my own non-specialist (albeit relatively practical) presentation about data in the urban environment, how we as poets, novelists, painters, musicians and songwriters fit and compare. For the dedication we can put in - not just that fabled 10,000 hours, but our obsessiveness around our work - is surely different but similar. Where is the collaboration and multi-disciplinary necessity of the artist? For those trying to make the case for an A in STEM (STEAM ) for arts, one of the problems is that our individual artistic worth may well be "standing on the shoulder of giants" but are still likely to be one offs. Whereas Picasso might be able to say it was easier for others to do what he did, after he'd shown them how, such breakthroughs in art aren't obviously incremental. However great an artist, writer or musician is, when they die or stop doing their work, the work remains, but who can possibly continue it except as a pale shadow? I asked a computer scientist once whether there were any "abandoned routes" in the history of computer science - languages, or ideas that were abandoned because computing went a particular way. He looked at me like I was insane. The past has always been superceded it seems (though when Tim Berners-Lee was looking for a language with which to put into practice his ideas for an internet based information system, his HTML was a subset of SGML, which had been developed as a technical language by airplane designers in the sixties.)

Yet as writers there are always non-linear routes we can follow, same for musicians and painters. One of the most damning things about contemporary art forms (certainly as I get older) is how sometimes they seem so ignorant of what has gone before, making it less about advancement, and more an inferior photocopy.

I know that there are creatives - academics and otherwise - who are specialists, like my cosmologist co-presenter above. Translators, linguistics experts, classical musicians, editors and subeditors, music producers, art technicians, restoration experts.... yet being these doesn't necessarily lead to a great work of art; the technical skill is separate in some ways from the creative one. It means that hearing that Simon Armitage has been elected to take over from Geoffrey Hill as Oxford Professor of Poetry, you can approach it in two ways: at last a populist; or how can he replace the venerable Hill? Of course, many writers have to earn their living from their expertise and inevitably for some that will be in translation, or teaching or research into poetry or biographer of a novelist; but such "expertise" seems a little irrelevant when set against one's creative work; you may as well be a cosmologist who writes (or as in my case, someone with a digital background.)

I wonder if we sometimes glory too much in our playfulness to the extent which we can call ourselves "amateur" rather than "professional" writers? The distinction between the two seems to be like it was in the early days of the Olympics, that professionals get paid, amateurs don't. (But remember, the amateur was sometimes held in higher regard as "sport" was not then the multi-million pound business it is today.) The sense of being an "expert" poet or novelist would be an absurdity, even, I guess to an Amis or McEwan, yet we shouldn't shy away from the word. Perhaps the "novel" is indeed, still "new", that we were better off when all humanities were dumped under the category of "philosophy", "love of wisdom". And in some ways I like that, for what is novelist or a poet other than a lover of wisdom? We may not know the answers but we revel in asking the question. Yet as we know from history, its not necessarily the wisest who are the most successful, at least in their own times. How do we measure the expertise of Emily Dickinson or Franz Kafka? What is it about Shakespeare that makes him the "expert" from which all else flows? Our culture hasn't produced another Shakespeare anymore that the proverbial monkeys with typewriters tapping away infinitely have - though our cosmologist might have something to say about that (the big question in cosmology is that: we know the universe is expanding, but why is it accelerating?)

In other words our past writers may well be greater than any to come - how does that square with out "expertise"? Do we need another crack at this liberal education lark? Where do we start? What do we need to learn. Had I at any time in my life been able to take time off from the day job for three years would I have done the hard concentration necessary to do a PhD? And what then? Is being an expert in the words of writer A, better than having just read a mix of writers? I suspect there are different, non-specialised intelligences which some of us are better cultivating. So that after my talk yesterday, quite a few students and postgraduates came up to me, as my subject was broad enough and empirical enough to interest them. For all the wonder of science specialisation, and the sense that its great that people are out there figuring how to get more "juice" out of a small piece of silicon, I can't help think that such expert brains, funnelled into a particular direction, are different than mine in so many ways. One of the horrors of being a computer programmer for a decade was how ephemeral the end result could be - where the thing you then wrote, taking months over it, would soon be obsolete, and more likely replaced by something that could now be written in just days.

The "expertise" that feeds into my poetry or fiction is of a very non-specialised nature; I sometimes wonder if it exists at all. Yet there are times when it seems I'm just as good as the top scientist in their particular field. That my "field" is just me, is no reason to stop; not yet anyway.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

You Need Never Stay in the House Again

I shouldn't complain...but at the last count I could go to at least seven events in the next week - not all literary, but all kind-of interesting.

So if you've not got any plans, try....

The launch of a new exhibition and the new edition of The Modernist tomorrow night....

A new art project at the National Football Museum - "Out of Play" - about technology and football... that's Friday.

On Saturday I'm reading poetry (me! poetry!) as part of a pop up reading at St. Helens Central Library 1pm-3pm, with (I hope) some other poets.

All weekend, 2-wheelers are invited to put their ideas into the Manchester Cyclehack.

Monday sees Verbose return to Fallow Cafe, with a very special trip to the suburbs by Tom Jenks, James Davis and Scott Thurston, the founders of the Other Room, reading their own work together.

Tuesday then sees Les Malheureux, Sarah Clare Conlon and David Gaffney at the Didsbury Arts Festival - performing at the Art of Tea - alongside a poetry slam. Of course, Didsbury Arts Festival starts this Saturday so there's stuff on every day for the next week and a half.

Wednesday has a special night of international poetry coming to Gullivers early evening -  then later that evening its Bad Language across the road at the Castle. Amazingly its their 50th event with special guest Jo Bell.

Next Friday an unusual talk from Pariah Press at Anthony Burgess Foundation called "The  idea of death" - which I'm going to be away for, but with sounds brilliant.

Enough already?

Sunday, June 14, 2015

After K

He's still one of the touchstones, Franz Kafka. The new arts centre in Manchester, Home, has "Kafka's Monkey" as part of its opening season, and last night I went to see an oddity, a version of his unfinished manuscript "The Castle", filmed by Michael Haneke.  Originally shown on Austrian TV in 1997 it feels older, somehow, a faithful retelling of a somewhat untellable tale. For "The Castle" was one of those manuscripts that Kafka may well never have wanted to see the light of day. It's telling that the best way to describe the film is as "Kafkaesque", so emblematic has Franz's work become. The Land Surveyor turns up in a village on the outskirts of the Castle that has hired him. Its a great opportunity for the man, yet the labrynthine bureaucracy that led to him being hired is so deep in the past that initially he is denied access, even to a bed, given that he has no permit. He is then assigned two "assistants", spying on his every word, as he begins to make his presence felt in a community that lives under the whims of a faceless bureaucracy, where livelihoods can be destroyed through some unknowing gesture. The Land Surveyor (with no land to survey) is made of strong stuff, and will not take no for an answer. He has been given a name - "Klamm" - who has apparently hired him. When he seduces/is seduced by Frieda, Klamm's mistress, is it because he wants to get nearer to the source of his trial (to echo that other Kafka novel) or because she is another spy? The absurdist novel is turned into an absurdist film which is occasionally ridiculous, with the grotesques of the village reminding you of Polanski's "The Fearless Vampire Killers", filmed 30 years earlier. The depiction of East European peasantry having not moved on much in the interim. What makes the film compelling, apart from its still resonant source material, is its lead actors, where both K, (the Land Surveyor) and Frieda, are brilliantly portrayed. The film, like the book, finishes as Kafka wrote it, mid-sentence, the story unresolved; yet it feels that any resolution would be a betrayal of the system that exists in place at the Castle, which is perfect only that any possibility is interpretable. Such is the tyranny of bureaucracy. Required viewing for any of the current government's disability assessment advisors.

For what we still see in Kafka is a reflection of a society that at the time he was writing, was yet to be named. He gave us a language by which to mock, if not understand, the emerging technocracy. The ruthless efficiency of tyranny is surely based upon what Kafka's books described, a circumlocuting of man, so that he no longer has agency; but that those agents that destroy him are themselves equally powerless actors behaving on the nebulous instruction of the machine.

What struck me watching "The Castle" as well, was the humanity that is at the heart of his diaries and letters. When K meets Frieda in the corridor of the inn towards the end, both having committed a kind of betrayal, their speeches read like something out of the letters. For love, denied love, was Kafka's other subject, and provides the counterpoint to that cold humour of displacement.

A hundred years on from the first publication of "Metamorphosis", Kafka still has a cultural resonance, that has outlasted many of his peers. The troubled publication history of work that was not finished for publication at the time of his death means that there have been several "versions" of Kafka - rather than a definitive text. Add to that the ambiguities of his life and nationality, and it seems we are not quite done with him yet.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Trigger Warning: These Poems are About Something

I probably have only myself to blame. When meeting other writers, particularly other poets, I've sometimes asked them what they write about, what their subject is. I'm interested from my own point of view, partly because the "traditional" subjects of poetry - love, elegy, nature - don't particularly interest me, or at least not all the time.

Up until the early 2000s, a certain mode had taken hold of British poetry, I think its fair to say, which you could probably describe as What Heaney Sees from His Window. The anecdotal, or the moment lived; the thing in view. Its not just in Heaney of course, but this sense of poetry that is personal experience, or if not experience, personally observed,  is the default mode. It is, to use well known examples, in the onion which Carol Ann Duffy writes about, even as she uses it as metaphor, or in the tire that Simon Armitage storifies, even as he adds the metaphysical. Where the imaginative or surreal came into poetry it was in a nicely protestant form, through story, fairytale, myth. I'm not saying poets didn't crave something else to write about, after all Heaney himself found a bit of a new lease of life with "Beowulf" a model that again has been picked up by poets wanting a big subject.

There was, as the anthology "Emergency Kit" (ed. by Kit Wright and Jo Shapcott) had identified in the 1990s, another "mode" of writing that was more elliptical, more strange. If you go into visual arts, we've long ago dumped the merely representational or the obviously viewed, yet British and even Irish poetry of the mainstream seemingly viewed such things suspiciously. Yet the flowering of poetry since the millennium and partly documented in books like Nathan Hamilton's "Dear World" shows a refreshing willingness to stretch beyond anecdote and personal experience, as valid as those modes can sometimes be. Our new nature poets are notably stranger in their approach than earlier ones, our anecdotalists, seem to have stepped through the rabbit hole, love poems are as diverse as love in the modern pluralistic world can be, even our elegies reflect the tragedies of contemporary life rather than merely age passing, and the way that we say these things has changed, is changing.

Yet, looking at a few recent poetic exchanges I'm a little worried that something else is beginning to overtake poetry on the inside track. There has been a recent tendency to reportage as poetry. At its worst, this has been the appropriation of found materials and dumping them in an inappropriate place conceptually, at its best this has been a certain documentary poetry. I'm not adverse to this. One of my favourite books of the last few years was C.D. Wright's "One Big Self" about prisoners, which took their own testimony and made poems of it (accompanied initially by photographs.) At a time when social media has pretty much become a platform for different self interest groups, we are seeing an over-policing of content that on the one hand identifies that poems can be about something, but on the other, insists that poems are EXACTLY about something. It strikes me that we use metaphor for a reason; that it has power beyond the events it describes.Yet at the same time, poetry's desire for a bit of a moment in the sun, means that art on its own is not a "story", instead work that gets noticed has to be "about" something.

Yet for me, without going into the language specifics of the L=A-N=G=U=A=G=E poets or a non commital "arts for arts sake" view, the work that I like best in all kinds of way is not, has never been, simply paraphraseable as prose. Wherefore Stevens' "Emperor of Ice Cream?" in this, and why do we love it so? And of course, the distinction is never that simple. Isn't it strange that the so-called conceptual poets, whose work we would expect to find hard to understand, are sometimes drawn to interpretable gestures? Or that a work of documentary, like "One Big Self", Dan O'Brien's "War Reporter" or Claudia Rankine's "Citizen", shortlisted for this years Forward Prize, can be a complex collage of forms?

When we look for a subject for a work - or the subject finds us - its usually somehow about connection. Why is that certain obscure points in history excite me when others don't? It's something to do with our artistic interpretation of the world. Perhaps more so in fiction, than poetry, where "making things up" used to be the whole point, this sense of "reality hunger" means that we sometimes look for the crutch of real life events as this makes the story less removed from our world. Yet the reason we talk about "Big Brother" is because of Orwell's imagination, not because of his reportage.

There has been a trend since the millennium for theatre that is based on real life events - even taking as source material policy reports or official documentation. This approach might be mirrored in Ken Goldsmith's appropriations for instance. This "documentary art" feeds our "reality hunger" in David Shields' words, and is ultimately interpretable. I've long been interested in the possibilies of written art that isn't paraphraseable, after all we have to hear a piece of music, experience a sculpture, see a painting to understand it. Even narrative forms, such as film, which are meticulously built, scene by scene have to be watched again (as I found the other day, watching the 40-year old "JAWS" again) and can change meaning. It seems one of the key elements of successful art, that it cannot be just described but should be experienced.

I wonder if our 24-hour news cycle, the inevitable desire to have "newsworthy" art - whether a Craig Raine poem, or prize-listed book - means that the genuine strangeness of the imagination becomes secondary. In the age of the superhero movie you'd think demand would lead to a whole new raft of superhero creations, yet instead Marvel raid Stan Lee's back catalogue for yet another revamp or reboot; even modern icons like Harry Potter are creations with a cultural backstory rather than genuine originals; our desire to dress up our children for World Book Day seems a betrayal of the imagination I had as a child (reading the book made me part of the interactive adventure, not wearing the clothes that the character wore on the cover), whilst adults "cosplaying" have replaced old mummers play archetypes with new ones from popular fictions.

So I get how we need to share in our myths, even commercialised ones (who wants to go to the fancy dress and be asked what you've come as?) but the literal application of the imagination is a second or third time removed from the actual art itself. Literalism sometimes seems as if its the unexpected yet inevitable next step after post-modernism has become exhausted: no, I'm not being ironic, I really do like ABBA/Lord of the Rings etc. etc. By all means be about something, but you don't have to be exactly about something -we have Wikipedia for that!

Saturday, June 06, 2015

From Finland with Love

I was on a rare trip to Bury Art Gallery last night, which is probably my favourite of the municipal art galleries in Greater Manchester. There have been some good shows on over the years, and it was the opening of a new show of contemporary Finnish Art, "New Narrative and Reader." As a big fan of all things Finnish I was interested in seeing this show. It seems a strong collection, both austere and playful, with a partial focus on portraiture that is then subverted; as well as some superb installed works, which make good use of the large open galleries of Bury. Its well worth popping on the tram to see.

Next week another important show - "Real Painting" - opens at Castlefield Gallery. The launch will be on the evening of 11th June.

With the sun streaming through my window and the word "June" on the calendar the year is going by far too fast. I'm sure I had some plans - like finishing the first draft of my novel by end of May! Hasn't happened, of course.... that's why deadlines are sometimes so useful. The annual Anthony Burgess/Observer competition prize for arts journalism is now open, and with a deadline of November, even I might make this one. Its good to see it becoming an established event in the calendar.

As I've not been writing this blog as regularly as before, I maybe forgot to mention that the 3rd issue of Manchester-based Confingo Magazine is now in the shops or available to buy online. Magma and Home are the shops in question, I think. Upping the art content for issue 3, its now got more of an art object feel to its production. Always fascinating to see how magazines evolve. A paying publication, its now accepting submissions of art and writing for issue 4, but please buy issue 3 to see what its all about. 

Part of my being busy is the plethora of literary events in the city - I think maybe everyone's clearing the decks before Manchester International Festival hits. Didsbury Arts Festival comes before then however, and seems bigger and better than ever this year. My friend, the novelist Sarah Butler has a "residency" during the festival "walking the edge" of the ward, and uploading a new piece of fiction each day. Such place-based writing is becoming very popular these days - and is just one of many events at this years festival which starts on 20th June. 

I'm also hoping to get along to Jackie Hagan's well received show "Some People Have too Many Legs" which following a successful tour is back for the Didsbury festival. Jackie says her show changes all the time, so even those who have seen it might welcome its return. 


Nightjar publishing, Nicholas Royle's occasional short story publishing venture returns with two new pamphlets from Alison Moore and Tom Fletcher. Single-story booklets, elegantly produced, but more importantly, with a high quality of stories, they are all limited editions, so  grab them while you can. A review of the latest couple coming soon.

I'm hoping to be doing a reading myself before too long, but more details soon. In the mean time, you can read a short story of mine "The Good Citizen" in VLAK, an extravagant 600+ page magazine of leading contemporary art, poetry and fiction, published out of Prague. 

Other recent work - my long poem "Parallels" is in PROLE, you can read an interview with me and my poem "The Octopus" (free) in "Bunbury Magazine", and I've a poem forthcoming in the next Cake Magazine.

Given that BunBURY is published out of Bury, and my poem in Cake was written in Helsinki, it nicely brings this roundup to a close. 

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Why do we only talk about bad poems?

I think the last time I remember a deep, argumentative discussion about a poem was when a pop star or film star wrote one (I can't remember who, its all a bit hazy). Yet, "Gatwick", a poem that Craig Raine has published in the LRB this week has caused plenty of discussion. In this poem (not online), a first person Raine is recognised by a young woman at airport security and then on the plane lusts after another woman. (NB. Changed this after comment below). Old man fancying younger woman is hardly news. Twitter and Facebook were full of discussion. On one twitter feed it seemed that this was just too good a chance to parody one of the doyennes of English poetry.

Charles Whalley, a regular reviewer, tweeted "jesus wept this is fucking grim." The poem's first lines (a first section of 3) go -:

Tom Stoppard sold his house in France. "I was sick
of spending so much time at Gatwick."

This, I suspect, is a found line, from which Raine weaves his poem, for he is also at Gatwick. There's hubris here, I think, after all, most of us might wonder why Stoppard's very first world problem deserves a poem; but here is Raine, being recognised by the girl at security. So far, so anecdotal. But in the third bit of the poem, "I want to say I like your bust" he says, before, apropos of nothing, having a go at her imagined mother. He then apologises, that he can't say these things, but he has done anyway.

I guess this is candour of a sort, though the poem sounds tossed off, in more ways than one. Apparently social media has been outraged at Raine's subject, yet when I first read it, I thought the humour being thrown in parodies of that first line in particular, were because it was such a patently bad poem. According to Facebook, even this is under discussion - and the outrage is outrage at the subject matter.

Having written about male lust for a younger woman, about desire late in life, and er... of hanging around in airports, I can hardly moan about the subject matter; but of course I don't think its likely I'll ever get a poem in the LRB (or would necessarily want one there) or be discussed in detail. I guess we only really talk about bad poems, and if this poem has any merit its because its just good enough to instil doubt, whilst being just bad enough to inspire parody. Its a long time since any Craig Raine poem has had any attention, so that's an appreciation of sorts; but it does make me wonder about how bankrupt our literary culture has become - that such nonsense can get published, and that having been published its the first poem for years that has been discussed at length.

Bizarrely, Sophie Hannah writes a riposte in the Guardian, that ignores the poem's quality in terms only of comments on its contents  when surely the two are linked? There is a serious discussion to be had about what subjects are not allowed in our strangely illiberal new media world. When Don Paterson wrote a prize winning poem about his love for an East European techno artist, there wasn't scorn, for it was a stunningly inventive poem, made the more so by its subject matter. Raine's poem seems off the beat in so many ways, that my real shock is that it has its defenders. Clearly, despite his poetry reputation being almost non-existent these days, Raine's profile as a man of letters still holds sway.

(For what its worth I quite like early Raine, but if anyone thinks this would have been published in the LRB without it being by a famous name, they're deluded.)