Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Prose Workshop on Tuesday, 2nd. Sep (Cambridge)

Out of ideas? Fed up with soul-searching? Why not take a break and relax at an evening of games, scavenging and recycling. Without realizing it, you might go home with enough material to last you through the winter.

I'm running it. For details see the Cambridge Writers page

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

UK literary magazines - an update

Magazines come and go. Here's a UK update -

Gone

Some of my main markets have disappeared

  • Weyfarers - After 115 editions, the poetry magazine Weyfarers is closing down. They cite "rising costs and the increasingly diverse forms of publication now available to poets". They published 25 of my poems.
  • Other Poetry - It's dormant (funding issues). They published 11 of my poems.
  • Assent - Apparently dormant. It carried on from Poetry Nottingham. Together the 2 magazines published 22 of my poems.

Newish [e-]paper mags

I'm surprized that so many of the newcomers are paper-based. Often they have high production values

Newish online mags

Some of these are already attracting big names and are seen on Acknowledgements pages in books.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Edinburgh, 2014

We stayed at Colinton (Edinburgh), a minute or so from some literary sites. Nearby lived Henry MacKenzie, whose "The Man of Feeling" (which I'd not heard of) was a bestseller in 1771. The 1886 Cassell & Company edition by David Price includes an "Index to Tears" listing the novel's hero's emotional upwellings. Apparently the novel was made fun of in the wake of its fame because of its sentimentality, though it's not without interest. Written after Sterne started being published, it was presented as if it's a reproduction of a partial manuscript, with the first 10 chapters missing and various other games played.

There's a Robert Louis Stevenson tour also. I've not read him either. The photo shows a statue of him as a boy. He was sent to university to do engineering, gave up, did law, but wasn't too committed to that either.

I also visited Glasgow for the first time. I looked around the city centre and went to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Inside the cafe in the photo is "Tell It Slant", which sells poetry books and magazines. The Oxfam bookshop on Byres road was good too.

Friday was my literary day, meeting Helena Nelson at the Edinburgh Book Festival (where I was introduced to James Robertson) then going to The Fruitmarket Gallery in the evening to see part of a show by Simon Barraclough, Isobel Dixon, A.B. Jackson, Rob A. Mackenzie, Andrew Philip, and Chrissy Williams, with Gerry Cambridge and Colin Will amongst the audience.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Poets being rude to readers

When a letter is poorly written (i.e. written without due care and attention, written without concern for the reader) or if a poet fails to rehearse for a reading there's a case for describing the author as negligent or even impolite.

If I read an application form that's messily filled in, I wouldn't be impressed; my time's been wasted. If I think the applicant is trying to bluff me, I grow suspicious; I feel I'm being taken advantage of. When I see difficult poetry, or a rough draft presented at a workshop, I sometimes wonder whether the poet's thinking more about themselves than the hapless reader.

Some standard guidelines for communication concern relevance - don't include material (e.g. line-breaks) that has no purpose, and certainly don't add features that have a negative effect on communication. Equally, don't delete too much - removing a few words to make a poem "denser" means that the reader will take longer to read it (i.e. the poem becomes in some sense longer - less dense - rather than shorter).

So when does "inconsiderate" become "rude"? When the behaviour's intentional? When it's continued despite it being pointed out? Of course, poets aren't mere communicators, and they can't be all things to all people, but if they make their work gratuitously difficult (e.g. by not providing notes, not explaining foreign words, adding skew-whiff line-breaks), if they don't bother spending just a little more time trying to make their work a lot easier without compromising artistic integrity, isn't rudeness sometimes a valid description?

And yet, I've never seen the term used in this context ("elitist" or "socially inept" yes, but not "rude"). Should poets think about their readers? Perhaps difficult poets do, but they don't want to insult the readers' intelligence. Considerate poets of various types exist. On the back cover of Billy Collins' "Ballastic" it says "No poet writing today insists on such open, direct and courteous engagement with the reader". Andrew McMillan in "Eyewear" wrote that "Constant consideration of the reader, of an audience, is the mark of a great poet. In [Emily] Berry, that is exactly what we have". I'm not convinced by the first sentence, and great though Emily Berry might be, her poems don't seem especially reader-centred, but at least the reviewer's addressing the issue. I think poets are well advised to anticipate the reader's reaction when rewriting a poem in order to weigh up whether any loss of reader-friendliness is sufficiently compensated for. There are poets (especially after receiving workshop feedback) who consider line by line how the poem will be received, how the reader's state of mind might change with each phase.

Some readers don't look for the author behind the text. Some poets don't actively consider the reader, concentrating instead perhaps on authenticity, on expressing what they really feel inside. The poet (though much more often the novelist) may wish to be invisible, discouraging a poet-reader relationship. Nevertheless, the poet might still show through. More often with poetry than with prose, there might be an assumed one-to-one connection between author and reader.

Readers may become irritated if they think the poet's Sexist, Racist, Anti-semite, Anti-gay, etc. Readers might become more than just irritated if they belong to the aggrieved set of people. Elitism or aloofness doesn't tend to provoke similar reactions - the poet's behaviour is less personal, less targeted, and could be described as style rather than attitude, and style isn't, as far as I can tell, considered a legitimate justification for becoming angry about a poet/artist.

Perhaps rudeness isn't an applicable emotion in this context; readers should be engaging with the text, not the poet. Or perhaps the presumption is that readers voluntarily enter into this unequal relationship with the writer, and should be prepared to walk away feeling disappointed, humiliated or inadequate. Perhaps it's felt that the editor or publisher rather than the poet is really the culprit. If more poets were criticised as being rude, perhaps they'd write more clearly. Describing them as elitist only encourages them.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Turkey

On the weekend before we left I was sorting out old postcards in my late parents' house. I found this postcard from Istanbul. I think a relative must have ended up there in a war. By some miracle, our first hotel was just across the road from this scene.

After nightfall people sat and chatted the way they might in Italy. Gaza was the main news topic. Turkish flags were at half mast. Religion in Turkey seemed little more pervasive than in Italian villages a few decades ago, except that more women were dressed conservatively; that said, there were fewer Burkas than in London. Some mosques were little more than a 2 storey house with a minaret coming out of a corner. They were white, silver, painted green or made of terra cotta bricks. Though there was some segregation, much of the time it wasn't evident. In the evenings families were walking around, with many affectionate fathers holding babies or steering pushchairs.

These are the walls that kept the crusaders out. Recently, gipsies were evicted from this area. Looks like they're returning. Someone's using the land for crops.

We visited Gallipoli, saw some trenches. Once we'd crossed into Asia we saw several amphitheatres. This was one of the more impressive - at Ephesus I think. We saw the remaining column of an Ancient wonder of the world - the Temple of Artemis - and the rather confusing site of Troy, whose numbered layers had lettered sublayers.

These "cotton castles" and thermal pools in Pamukkale are beside the extensive Roman remains of Hierapolis which we walked around while the temperature was in the 40s. Russians posed in bikinis.

Back in Istanbul we were in the mood to buy tacky souvenirs, but it was holiday time, the end of Ramadan, and the Grand Bazaar was closed (we'd lost ourselves in it on an earlier trip). Allegedly it's full of Chinese goods anyway. Fortunately there was no shortage of other places open.

We did all the usual touristy things (though I bottled out of going to a Turkish Bath). The merchants were much less pro-active than in Egypt. The food was rather like Crete's though there was no pork. We saw many scrawny cats, not all of them alive.

If I hadn't seen The Basilica Cistern on TV we might not have bothered with it. It's an underground water storage tank with columns making it look like a subterranean cathedral. Later on our 1500km travels we saw silk threads spun, carpets being woven (I hadn't realised that carpets could change colour as they're rotated) and saw pancakes being made in the traditional way down a village track.

The variety contained within Hagia Sophia (features similar to Ravenna's combined with Islam) was mirrored in other aspects of life. Burgerking rubs shoulders with mosques. We went in a minibus with disco lights to a club that sold the usual cocktails. Cheddar cheese was in restaurants, and Vegemite sandwiches were at Gallipoli. The riverside houses we saw could have been beside Lake Como. As we went East I expected scenes from Borat's Kazakhstan. There were a few, but mainly the country seemed south-European. Outside Istanbul and Izmir were hills and hills of tower blocks. 50% of Turkey's 70+ million population is under 30 and they have to live somewhere.

Literature? I try to mention it in each blog post, so here goes. There was a multi-tent bookfair in first square we visited (in the foreground of the old postcard I found). We walked through Istanbul's book market. We saw the Roman library in Ephesus, which once held 12,000 to 15,000 scrolls. We visited Pergamun where they invented parchment. I read "Riptide" issue 10, the latest issue of "The Interpreter's House", "The loneliness of the long distance runner" and "Slaughterhouse 5". I wrote about 100 words. Such a feeble writing urge isn't usually a good sign for me. I suspect I'll use Troy's confused layers as a metaphor eventually.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Getting another publication out

People talk about the "difficult second album". It's the same with books. The follow-up to the debut book shows whether the first was a fluke, and whether the writer has any material left after having printed the collected best work of their life so far. I have 2 book[lets] to follow up - one poetry, the other prose - so my situation's doubly tricky. Two reasonable guidelines I've heard are

  • Wait until you have enough material - there's no rush
  • Wait until you've marketed and sold your earlier publications

In my case it's not clear that either guideline's been met. All the same, here are some possible future publications

  • A 2nd poetry pamphlet - Less mainstream than my first. I've already sent to publishers and pamphlet competitions. Got close once or twice.
  • A themed poetry pamphlet - Wordplay. Already sent to pamphlet competitions without success.
  • A poetry book - using a few poems from my first pamphlet along with material from the above pamphlets. Never sent out.
  • A 2nd story book - rejected once. It includes several previously published pieces, plus some prizewinners - about £300 worth of stories. More varied than my first book - in particular there are more micro-fictions.
  • A prose book of pieces less than 1000 words long - never sent out. A dozen or so of the pieces have already been published, earning about £80.

I can pursue the publication of some of these in parallel. However, none of them is marketing gold, and competition from creative writing graduates and poets overseas grows more intense. The book need to be headlined by some more successful pieces. My plan in 2013 was to get some prose competition successes to strengthen the credentials of the 2nd story book, while placing poems in a rather higher league of magazines than I'd previously appeared in. No success. I'm trying the same scheme this year, with more emphasis on short prose. I've had some success, but not enough yet. So I'll wait.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Artifice and UK writers

TOUCHSTONE
No, truly; for the truest poetry is the most
feigning; and lovers are given to poetry, and what
they swear in poetry may be said as lovers they do feign.

AUDREY
Do you wish then that the gods had made me poetical?

This, from "As You Like It", exploits a pun - "feign" means "fake" and "fain" means "desire". Julian Barnes when he quoted the passage added "Does he mean that feigning is the only way to a higher truth? That all poetry is made of lies? That true poetry comes from a lover’s deepest desires? That love poetry is deceitful, and provides a way to satisfy one’s desires under a pretence of love?".

The popularity of Artifice and Mannerism goes through phases. "Give a man a mask and he will reveal himself" said Oscar Wilde, but in general, readers like their prose to be free of artifice. At book clubs where novels are discussed, the behaviour of the characters ("why did he fall for her?") and the book's main issues ("should she have had that abortion?") tend to dominate the discussion over issues of technique and word choice. When authors like Julian Barnes, Toby Litt, Matthew Francis and Ali Smith (in "Artful") slip into essay mode, use wordplay or exploit Oulipo techniques, the effects may be described as clever, but they're less often considered to be of literary value. Even if they're not described as "showing off" the effects are "distracting". Sincerity and restraint are admired both in displays of emotion and of language.

Not quite as bad as being called "clever" is being described as "a stylist". Again, content is seen as being affected by (or obscured by) the mode of expression, which is considered to be of less literary value than the content (though at least style, unlike form, is unlikely to have a negative value).

I think my prose is vulnerable to both types of criticism - I write Formalist Prose, and passages of mine like the following depend on style and symbolism at least as much as on character

  • My parents’ loft is full of broken pieces of my childhood. There’s a suitcase of Rupert Annuals with sellotaped spines. The annuals included origami instructions — a historic breakthrough for the British Origami Society. When there was a bird in a story, they had instructions to make a bird with flapping wings, as if the bird could escape from the printed page.
  • When mum used to drive me home from swimming practice I sometimes closed my eyes, guessing from the turns and braking where we were. Often, as we turned into our drive, I'd convinced myself we were somewhere else

The norms of poetry are different, though even there some types of artifice are frowned upon - acrostics and foregrounded rhyme are playing with words, but unobtrusive syllabics are ok. In his recent Twenty-First Century Modernism blogpost Gareth Prior writes "A caricature of the current “conventional wisdom” would trace a line of descent from Edward Thomas down through Larkin to the contemporary lyric “I”, bypassing poets like Bunting, MacDiarmid, David Jones and Lynette Roberts. . He goes on to suggest that "Poems are allowed to be experimental in an easy-to-grasp tricksy way that makes us feel smug for “getting” them, but genuine difficulty is seen as suspect and/or elitist", and that the UK "seem to have it worse than the rest of the Anglophone world". He's writing more about difficulty than gaudy artifice, but for readers who want the language to be as clear as possible to reveal the true meaning of the content, anything that draws attention to language isn't welcomed.

Perhaps the English reputation for plain speaking intellectualism is deep-seated, perhaps US writers have more freedom. Helen Vendler wrote that Jorie Graham "is willing to indulge in extreme Mannerism in order to reproduce, in what she believes to be an accurate way, the shimmer of body-mind as it attends to nature".