Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Stories from the Uncanny Valley

The uncanny valley effect describes what happens when something is unsettlingly close to being realistic. A nearly realistic wig attracts longer stares than an outlandish hair-do. In a horror movie, a person with slightly odd behaviour (e.g. Norman Bates) can be more disturbing than a plainly mad axe-man.

To me, all "stories" are artificial, it's just that some of them pretend not to be. In "The Best American Short Stories 1996" edited by John Edgar Wideman, two authors describe how their stories begin unrealistically without having a narrative impetus or a single consciousness -

  • "I write hundreds of pages of fragments every year and put them in folders together, hoping they will mate ... I am always groping in the dark when it comes down to actually fitting pieces of these fragments together" (Dan Chaon)
  • "I wanted the story to hinge or unify itself with a series of repetitions and interlocking images: water, birds, flight, God, sugar, junk, and so on. It's something of a contrivance to have Scout kill himself" (Jean Thompson)

I use both of these techniques. Sometimes there's much symbolic interlocking in the language, despite the main character's life falling apart. Just as a painting can be organised around constellations of colour (the blue of a saint's eyes matching the blue of the sky) so a story can have a non-linear organisational structure - the storyline being accidental, emergent; the characters not burgeoning from an inner soul of necessity but constructed as a sop for readers who want a character to empathize with.

In some of my pieces, the voice and or the plot are chosen to give me the chance to combine elements that don't normally co-exist. To say that the character doesn't ring true is as relevant as saying that Wallace Stevens' emperor of ice cream is unconvincing because he's clearly deficient both in marketing skills and leadership. In such circumstances the reality-hungry reader would have an easier time if there were fewer character-like elements - they raise the expectation of characters existing, leaving the reader in the uncanny valley of near-realism. So maybe I should try making the lack of realism more explicit, my intentions clearer. The result might tend towards being an essay or being fragmentary, but that's something I'll have to live with.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Cinnamon Press at CB2, September 2015

Yesterday I attended part of Cinnamon's 10th anniversary roadshow. Jan Fortune entertainingly and informatively introduced 4 writers -

  • Jane Monson was the only writer I knew about. She read from The Shared Surface which I'd already read. Sometimes when I hear a poem I can appreciate it in way that I couldn't on the page. I don't think that happened in this case. The book's promoted as prose poetry, though I think I need to listen to them as if it's poetry, and I think having the text before me would help.
  • Adam Craig read from his novel "Vitus Dreams". It's no ordinary novel. On the night I think it was described as experimental. In the past I would have leapt at the chance to read such a piece. At the moment however, I'm avoiding such challenges. I note that he's going to push a collection of collection of micro-fictions, which I'll look forward to. Both he and Jane Monson operate on the prose/poetry border, a zone I'm exploring with short pieces too.
  • Maria Apichella read from "Paga" (Winner of the Cinnamon Press Pamphlet Prize 2014, adjudicated by Ian Gregson). These were the night's most accessible poems. One was a love poem to her husband (who was present) written before they'd met.
  • Laura Seymour read from "The Shark Cage". She's finished her Ph.D (on Shakespeare and cognition) whereas Maria Apichella's still doing hers. Though I couldn't take it all in, there was much imagery that sounded interesting, and it wasn't at the expense of a sort of narrative, so I bought her book. Flicking through, I'm impressed.

It would be wrong to deduce from this that all Cinnamon's prose is experimental (some of it isn't even very "literary"). Nor do all their poets have Ph.Ds. What helps keep the range fresh is that several of the books were chosen by external judges.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Nine Arches Press

It just so happens that my pile of things to read has reached a seam of Nine Arches Press publications. Recently I've read -

and not long ago I read

Publishers nowadays have to wear many hats. Jane Commane, who runs the press, is active in social media and is involved with festivals, shows, the magazine Under the Radar, mentoring, and running workshops. The hope is that these activities cross-fertilise, producing more readers and writers, all the time raising the profile of the press. Collaborative activities include

  • Leicester Shindig, a bi-monthly spoken word event organised with The Centre for New Writing & Crystal Clear Creators
  • A mentoring scheme Primers with the Poetry School

Keeping all this going is hard work. Jane was in "Best British Poetry 2011" but I guess writing takes a backseat nowadays, and she's not doing a part-time non-publishing job any more. It would have been fun to try to interview her, but Roy Marshall has done a good job there already.

When one assesses success of a publisher, longevity is a factor (it started in 2008) as is impact ("The Midlands" was reviewed in The Guardian), but in the end the quality of the books is the deciding factor. Buy a few and see what you think. Go to their stall at Free Verse: The Poetry Book Fair at Conway Hall, London on Saturday 26th September or have a look online.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Tweening, Larkin and Rupert Bear

When Disney animations were hand-made, the master artists drew the key frames (the "keys"), leaving assistants to complete the frames in between (a job they called "tweening"). If apprentice artists could tween, why not knowledgeable audiences? Poetry has such an audience. But there are consequences to sacking the tweeners -

  • Suppose people tween differently? As long as the distance between keys isn't large, there shouldn't be problems. The keys act as checkpoints so that people can resynchronise if they feel they need to
  • If the distances become too large there might be a loss of narrative. Consequently there's a tendency for each key scene becomes more self-contained. The keys become a series of disconnected tableaux - a triptych, a gallery.

A common way of tweening in literature is to supply backstory, motivations, or justifications - in short, telling rather than showing. The amount of this varies according to the style. In the TV series "The Wire" there's little "telling"; the writers decided that all sound had to be sourced - no voice-overs and no background mood music. All music had to come from a car radio, an open tenement window, etc. Some poetry has a similarly purist approach, using juxtaposed images to keep "telling" to a minimum. The risk is that such poetry becomes a game of charades, a dumbed-down mime-show. Complex arguments are difficult to show, concepts like fate harder still.

Sometimes the "telling" (the interpretation, the moral) is only at the end, though this is rather unfashionable nowadays. One way to convey the information without despoiling artistic purity is to employ metalepsis, making it hard to distinguish between the "show" and "tell" elements. A cinematic example would be for there to be a voice-over scene during which a character walks into the frame speaking the voice-over.

Another, more reader-friendly approach is that adopted by the Rupert annuals. The Rupert Bear stories began as a newspaper cartoon strip, but soon became better known for the annuals. The page layout supports several reading modes. Each page has the story title at the top. Beneath that there's a page subtitle. Young children can follow the pictures. Each picture has a rhyming couplet beneath it - e.g. He meets Pauline, and straight away/ He tells her all he has to say. At the foot of the page is prose - Rupert and Snuffy run towards the tent. Pauline is the first Guide he meets and he pours out his story. People can read the verse, the prose or both.

An entertaining exercise is to take a poem (by Larkin, say, The Whitsun Weddings) and give it the Rupert treatment, pictorialising the imagery (at 1.20pm on a sunny day, a quarter-full train with all its windows open leaves a city station), adding sub-titles to describe how none thought of "how their lives would all contain this hour". Trying the same exercise with Larkin's "Toads" would yield a very differently proportioned layout. I suspect that with some poets their poems would all have the same proportion of text to pictures.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Non-elitist, working class, or political UK literary magazines

Here are 3 UK magazines for non-elitist, working class, or political poems and stories -

  • Prole - "We want to appeal to a wide audience and reconnect a broad readership with excellent examples of poetry and short prose. Anything that sniffs of literary elitism is highly unlikely to make it through the editorial process. If it does, it’s only because we won’t have noticed and the piece has other areas of merit. Obscure references and highly stylised structures and forms that exist only to aggrandise the writer and appeal to the coffee lounges of our older universities are not welcome."
  • Proletarian poetry - "a home for poets and poems that portray working class lives from many different angles; corrugated iron and bricks, brass bands, rogues, grandparents, historical figures, imprisoned poets, the contradictions of capitalism and communism, suffragettes, homeless, transgender revolutionaries, postman, bookmakers, and many, many more."
  • The Stare's Nest - "send poems about current affairs, our culture, media, or political system. As well as poems about political problems and the occasional out-and-out rant, we would like to encourage positive poems about hope, inclusivity, lessons from the past and visions of a better future. Above all the poem should be relevant to both poets and non-poets"