Friday, 25 December 2009

Glimpses of Italy

I'd planned to do some writing on my holiday just before Xmas. The plane journey started well in that regard. On the train that I took from Turin to Bardonecchia I saw this notice. At first I thought it was a warning but it's a publisher asking for manuscripts from emerging writers. By then I'd stopped writing. I was reading a book I'd bought in Turin - "Almanacco dello specchio 2007", published by Mondadori. It has selected poems, essays on the year's trends and main publications, interviews, and bilingual sections on Paul Vangelist and Jamie McKendrick. There are also several retrospectives provoked by publication of "collected works" though Caproni (died 1990) is the most common point of reference (some essays of his were published in 2006). I find such books useful, but the Italian titles and publishers change, making them hard to track down - I also have "Annuario di Poesia 2000" (Crocetti Editore) and "Poesia 2005 Annuario" (Castelvecchi).

The Italians like their manifestos, their movements. John Picchione covered "Gruppo 63" and "Gruppo 70" in his "The New Avant-Garde in Italy: Theoretical Debate and Poetic Practices" (Univ of Toronto Press, 2004), mentioning their diversity of methods (e.g. Giuliani's work is studied in relation to Dylan Thomas, John Cage and Wittgenstein!) and intent (revolution vs normalisation, etc). It seems to me that discussion of Avant-Garde is less avoidable in Italy than in England, that there's more fluidity between theory and practise. "Almanacco dello specchio 2007" confirms these impressions. I've read the essays - there's nothing about the state of poetry, or the publishing world, or even the web, but their theoretical concerns are similar to ours. Anna Maria Carpi's work is described as "confessional poetry di taglio neocrepuscolare" (neo-Twilight - the Italian Twilight poets wrote in the early 20th century about the sadness and disappointment). They put Larkin's poetry into that category. Carpi uses autobiographical immediacy/authenticity combined with metrical forms. At the other extreme, "Fuoriformato" is a collection whose forward says that it involves "una poesia che non evada da se stessi soltanto verso la prosa ma che magari estremizzi le proprie componenti liriche, sino ad annichilirle" (a poetry that escapes from itself not only towards prose, but even taking its own lyrical components to the extreme, as far as their annihilation"). Then there's Pagliarani, whose poetry is "piu performance che narrativa, piu prose kinema che realta, piu montaggio che ritmo".

They mention reactions to the domination of lyrical poetry. Interestingly there's a "movement disseminated in various parts of Italy that sparsely and without apparent connections returns to closed metrics, practised for very different motives ... the radical experimentation of the sonnets of Patrizia Valduga ... the transparent narratives of Airaghi".

I've only browsed through the poetry selections so far - they cover a range of poetry types, though here's less dialect poetry and ragged-left poetry than I expected. There aren't many non-rhyming box-shaped stanzas, or poems where all the stanzas are the same shape.

Bardonecchia has less than 4000 inhabitants but manages to have a bookshop and 2 newsagents selling literary novels (though Dan Brown dominated the window displays). We were all but snowed in at times, which should have helped with the writing. Opposite us, on the baker's doorstep, was an inflated Santa Claus. Below our window on the last night was a little snowplough. We managed to get away on Christmas Eve, past heaps of snow 2 meters high, so I missed the forthcoming cultural events- a "Tribute to Michael Jackson" on Dec 29th and a book-launch on Dec 30th, the 3rd "Incontri Letterari" of the month. I read my 2 new Flash pieces on the way back. They weren't as good as I'd hoped.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

The year's Writing and Reading


At the start of 2009 I realised that 3 lifetime publication milestones were within reach - 150 poems, 50 pieces of prose, 1000 pounds. I've been writing a while so these figures are no more than one should expect (rather less, in fact). In the end I only reached the money target. Last year I placed 4 stories, this year none, and yet I think I've written 3 good stories this year and 2 good shorts - twice my usual output. I've only written 2 publishable poems. With my kind of writing an idea can end up as a poem or a paragraph in a story, and prose has had first refusal this year. But I suppose it's early days yet - stories can take a while to get accepted.


Magazines - I subscribe (or am about to subscribe) to Acumen, Assent, Dark Horse, Iota, Other Poetry, Rialto, Smiths Knoll, Sphinx, Staple, Tears in the Fence, and Weyfarers. I read some other mags irregularly - I especially liked "All downhill from here", a story by Guy Ware in London Magazine, Aug/Sept 2009

Poetry - I read no poetry books between 20/10/08 and 8/5/09. Of the 12 I read in 2009 my favorites were "The Men from Praga", (Anne Berkeley) and "The Striped World" (Emma Jones)

Short Stories - Of the 9 collections I read I most liked "Broken Things" (Padrika Tarrant), "Assorted Fire Events" (David Means), and "Stories of your other life" (Ted Chiang).

Novels - I started reading 12, finished 10. I liked "la solitudine dei numeri primi" (Paolo Giordano), "White Noise" (Don DeLillo), and "Day" (A.L. Kennedy)

Tuesday, 15 December 2009


Mine comes from the usual places, I think. Here's a selection from my recent notes (categorized for this blog)

  • brave in front of the children
  • trading loneliness for humiliation
  • dramatic irony - a person who thinks she's helpful and understanding, called Little Miss Gullible behind her back
  • "Blame Culture" - someone surprises their partner with a trip to St Oleve's churchyard, Hart St to show them Mary Ramsay's grave (she brought the plague to London)
  • Nostalia = a broken cassette on the roadside, tape billowing like seaweed
  • Start with "We had a fight. I don't remember what it was all about"
  • Two pieces which sound the same but are spelt differently: e.g. "Can circumstances change?" - "Cancer comes, stances change"
  • A piece called "Single" about splitting up, which reads differently if doubled letters are made single - "her ragged words scarred me, her tinny laughter"
In the News
  • some councils have to put notices up in cemetaries after a kid playing on graves was killed by a falling headstone
  • In the Utah Desert during WW2 an imitation Berlin zone was build to test which bombs worked best. Wood was imported from as far away as Murmensck. It was furnished by RKO Radio Pictures Authenticity Division (who also did Citizen Kane)
  • After Elizabeth died, Rossetti kept a zebra, a kangaroo, a wombat, and a raccoon at 16 Cheyne Walk. Neighbours complained only when he got a peacock.
  • When a friend went to a contact lens appointment she was told that tear quality goes down after you're past 40

I often need 2 reasons for starting on a work. I often build around a symbolic framework or a plot, or start with a few dotted images and scenes that I try to join up. "Voice" is my the least successful starting point. If I start in a new voice it all too often trails off, leaving me in my habitual styles. A spark's not enough. I need tinder, paragraphs of it, which is why I have a box folder of work by "Others" (on the right in this photo).

Inside are a few torn-out pages but mostly there are photocopies. Before I could afford photocopies I copied passages by hand - just a paragraph sometimes, paragraphs I could never have written, new places to start from. You see, I sometimes want to sound like Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens and Dylan Thomas. Or Borges, De Lillo and AL Kennedy.

While sifting through the folder earlier this year I saw a name that was familiar - Elizabeth Baines

I must have written this decades ago (don't be fooled by the TXT-like spelling - that's my shorthand). Doubtless it's the voice I was interested in.

Voice is a feature I sacrifice or fracture as a compromise, in order to make room for other features, but those other features tend to mean more to me than to others. In particular, the forms of formal prose demand sacrifices that to others look self-defeating. Voice (in particular starting a story from somewhere new) is what I'll be practising soon.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009


There have been a few works that I wanted to re-experience immediately, or as soon as I start forgetting them. Their effect may be short-lived (U2's "One", Elbow's "Fugitive Motel", Kate Bush's "Under the Ivy") or they may stick with me for years ("Cinema Paradiso"). Here I'll look at 3 literary obsessions.

Love Letters on Whitewash - Joel Lane

Joel Lane's best known for Fantasy/Horror writing I think, but I first heard him as a poet when he was doing an Mphil about the history or philosophy of Science. "Love Letters on Whitewash" has about 10 4 line stanzas. I've seen it published in a few places. Here are 3 sample stanzas.
On this wet wall in a blank house,
In this locked flesh of a sanitised womb,
I touch the face without make-up,
The bloodshot eyes and bruised mouth.
Where your picture floats face down,
Blurred from the developing fluid,
unsigned, like a valentine
Or a ballot paper. Perhaps
Or if, only once, I made you cry
Prisms that trapped new bridges
Over these choked canals, and lit
Chimneys stubbed out against the clouds,
I was a sucker then for urban squalour - blown litter, flapping tarpaulins - and flashy imagery. Still am.

Malone Dies - Samuel Beckett

Acually, it's just the last few pages of this, before "The Unnamable" kicks in. After 250 pages of Beckett's trilogy, the pace accelerates at this point. Here are 3 extracts
On. One morning Lemuel, putting in the prescribed appearance in the great hall before setting out on his rounds, found pinned on the board a notice concerning him. Group Lemuel, excursion to the islands, weather permitting, with Lady Pedal, leaving one p.m. His colleagues observed him, sniggering and poking one another in the ribs. But they did not dare say anything. One woman however did pass a witty remark, to good effect. Lemuel was not liked, that was clear. But would he have wished to be, that is less clear. He initialled the notice and went away.
Are you the one in charge? said Lady Pedal. One of the sailors leaned towards Lemuel and said, She wants to know if you're the one in charge. Fuck off, said Lemuel. The Saxon uttered a roar which Lady Pedal, on the qui vive for the least sign of animation, was pleased to interpret as a manifestation of joy. That's the spirit! she cried.
Then they set out, all six, from the shore.
Gurgles of outflow.
This tangle of grey bodies is they. Silent, dim, perhaps clinging to one another, their heads buried in their cloaks, they lie together in a heap, in the night. They are far out in the bay. Lemuel has shipped his oars, the oars trail in the water. The night is strewn with absurd
absurb lights, the stars, the beacons, the buoys, the lights of earth and in the hills the faint fires of the blazing gorse. Macmann, my last, my possessions, I remember, he is there too, perhaps he sleeps. Lemuel
Lemuel is in charge, he raises his hachet on which the blood will never dry

For a while I thought this section to be the most beautiful passage of prose I'd ever read

so many ways to begin (jon mcgregor)

A novel that emotionally engaged me more than any other. 60 sections, each headed by an item ("Biscuit tin, rusted, used as money box or for keepsakes, c.1944"). The format gives him flexibility - some chapters describe a moment or offer a past/present juxtaposition, some are enjambed narrative fragments. His strength is narrative rather than quotable, flashy highlights but he's never less than tidy - "She said nothing, waiting for the blurred sarcasm to wear itself out" (p.312). There are lists of details (e.g. p.37 describing what he likes about museums - "scribbled designs for the world's first steam engine, spotted with candlewax and stained with jam").

The writing's spare - years and events are elided; paragraphs are often juxtaposed instead of being connected by recitative. He slips unobtrusively between past and future, between reality and might-have-beens, between hopes and regrets. Sometimes (e.g. p.205) he offers alternatives - "Eleanor walked quickly ... Or she walked tall ...Or she ran" - even if the event only happened once.

The artfulness? Well, there are the usual novelistic coincidences and parallels (Mary and Dorothy in chapter 60; the choice of Coventry, etc). The chapter headings are in the style of museum labels - "Tobacco tin; used for storing buttons, beads, safety pins, c.1960s". These are everyday exhibits from which one can make a narrative from a life much as a curator might try to manoeuvre a visitor around a show. And at the end (especially, but also whenever people look back) one is conscious of the inadequacy of trying to represent a life by episodes and objects.


What do these works say about me? What do Lane, Beckett and McGregor have in common? Maybe not much. McGregor's is a realist novel, with only hints of shifting signifiers. Lane's doesn't confront the difficulties of language and representation. They're all easy reads on some level. They're all lyrical, with local flashes of (showy?) brilliance embedded in a punctuated narrative arc. They all touch on the human condition.

Lane's piece isn't merry, but it ends on an upbeat. Beckett's could be a fable of personality disintegration and recovery. McGregor's narrator lead an ordinary life, where it "felt good to be doing this thing that was almost but never quite the same". That's about the nearest he gets to epiphany. That's it.

Like the pop songs I fall for, they may not be "good". Maybe they just turned up at the right time, forever linked to some now forgotten autobiographical event. Partly their impact was because they were examples of what I aspired to write at the time. Sometimes I feel they have stopped me in my tracks as far as my writing's concerned. They were hard to let go but in the end I had to - with grateful, fond memories.

Thursday, 3 December 2009


I've been wondering whether the "I don't like it" vs "I don't get it" distinction is if not artificial then at least unknowable (to self and others). Or which predispositions and situations make people say one rather than the other, what the motives and consequences might be.

"I don't like it" vs "I don't get it"

Can the distinction be made? Sometimes surely, but it depends on the context.

  • Social situation - In the tutor/pupil situation perhaps it's easier for the tutor to say "I don't like it" and the pupil to say "I don't get it". In judges' reports you might not often see lines quoted that the judge admits to not understanding. Of course contestants are happy to accept that judges have preferences, but if they have unadvertised biases it's more awkward. Perhaps judges should be more upfront about their blindspots beforehand, or return the entry fees of poems that they feel unqualified to judge :-). As a ploy they might be prepared to say that a particular poem is "good of its type" but then dismiss that type for reasons they don't explain.
  • The Artist - it's easier to admit to blindspots about some artists than others. Stockhausen, Larkin, Prynne, and Olds are fair game. However a dislike or incomprehension of Neruda might be viewed with more suspicion. Perhaps there are poets for whom the only acceptable reason for disliking them is that you don't understand them - to know them is to love them, though they may be difficult to get to know. Shakespeare? Geoffrey Hill?

In practise the distinction might just be another way of saying something else - whether you'd bother re-reading the work, for example. Maybe "I don't get it" can mean "I don't like it but famous people do, so I'm inadequate".

There are some poets' work I find easy to like but hard to love (Glyn Maxwell maybe). There are poems I'd rather read about than read (Les Murray's maybe). If I understand and like a poem I may not agree with it (it may be a Political poem, for example) but that's a different matter.

Attitudes to Blindspots

I heard Philip Hensher (novelist and reviewer) being interviewed recently, saying that he didn't get Ian McEwan's work and hence didn't review it. I think he said he was happy to accept that people had blind spots - big ones even. But perhaps he doesn't really like McEwan's novels. Such meta-judgements are going to be error-prone though. I'm not keen on Olson. I'd go so far to say that I think he's more important than good, that I don't have a blindspot as far as he's concerned. Whereas I think there's more to Heaney than meets my eye.

Moreso than judges, magazine editors can afford to have blindspots - they're what give their magazines character. Practising writers perhaps have the most license. Even so there may be repercussions. Nabokov said - "[music] I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds". With the benefit of medical advances we'd tend to label this as a medical condition, a handicap. But Nabokov's admission didn't affect his work's reception. Larkin's dislike of modern jazz is treated more as a personality defect, though some people read aesthetic limitations into it. I prefer even "Frankie goes to Hollywood" to Mozart. Ok, so I like some JS Bach, Barber's Adagio, Bartok's quartets, but surely my statement exposes a lack of taste.

Career poets had better not advertise too many of their poetry blindspots if they want to judge competitions, or if they don't want to discourage people coming to their workshops.

How to fake it

Whether the blindspot's related to emotion, empathy or intellect there may be remedies. Firstly there may be an underlying perception problem - if you're totally colourblind you're not going to be able to respond to blue or even "blue". Readers won't see syllabics unless they count the syllables, and some readers don't listen to the sound of the words. Sometimes these perceptual deficits are due to inattention and can be remedied.

But the problems may lie deeper. Psychology tests nowadays can reveal all kinds of individual quirks in our visual and language processing. The effects show up in contrived laboratory conditions. In everyday life we manage to compensate for them - e.g. the face-blind pay more attention to gait, clothes, etc. It's not surprising that poetry would reveal individual differences in apprehension. I think my poetry appreciation is a patchwork of blindspots - from poem to poem or even from line to line. I approach texts with a mishmash of innate and learnt behaviours, but usually act as if the unevenness is all in the text.

How can one compensate? Give a computer enough examples of so-called good and bad art (in a limited field) and pattern-matching software can often judge future examples pretty well (though it may not be able to give explanations). You can train yourself in the same way - working by analogy and general principles. In poetry, where there's a wide range of tastes anyway, it's not too hard to bluff one's way through one genre or facet of poetry, especially if you've acquired credibility in other genres. Indeed, opinions by newcomers and outsiders might prove valuable. If I were to judge Mr World I might well make a less controversial decision than if I were judging Miss World - fewer hormones and idiosyncrasies get in the way, and I'd use more general principles and cliches/archetypes.

Can fakery be detected? It's not as simple as that. For a start, some people think that any use of the intellect rather than the heart is "faking it". Also one can begin by faking it then end up loving it. But if poets on R4's Saturday Review or BBC2's Review Night say that some Art Exhibition's "Extraordinary" (inarticulate gushing being a common enough strategy to cover ignorance) it would be interesting to see if they subsequently go to similar exhibitions. Maybe. Maybe eventually it's possible to reach the stage when one can say (as amateurs also do) "I like all sorts of poetry as long as it's good" and get away with it, but I don't see the point.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Story Beginnings and Endings

My latest article is Story Beginnings and Endings. Here it is


"It was a dark and stormy night ..."

The opening of a short story is more important than a novel's - it's a bigger proportion of the whole, and because a story's supposed to have a tight structure, the beginning's a strong indicator of the whole story's genre, mood and tone. Sometimes they even suggest what the end's going to be. Here's the first paragraph of a story. How's it going to end?

"You're not going out with him and that's the end of it!" Jenny's father announced.

(I'll show you the ending later. For now here's a clue - it's from "Yours", a Women's magazine).

Beginnings often set the scene in some way. In the olden days, first paragraphs were info-dumps. Here's something from 1859.

As Mr. John Oakhurst, gambler, stepped into the main street of Poker Flat on the morning of the twenty-third of November, 1850, he was conscious of a change in its moral atmosphere since the preceding night. Two or three men, conversing earnestly together, ceased as he approached, and exchanged significant glances. There was a Sabbath lull in the air which, in a settlement unused to Sabbath influences, looked ominous.

Initial info-dumps aren't necessarily bad - beginnings like "Gregory Samsa woke from uneasy dreams one morning to find himself changed into a giant bug" quickly give the reader the required context - but newer stories tend to spread out the scene-setting, sometimes starting in the middle of the action - medias in res. A survey came up with these statistics for how stories begin: 40% "narrative", 30% "description" (e.g. info-dumps), 10% "speech", 5% "author comment".


"Then I woke up and realised it was all a dream."

According to "The Narrative Modes" by D.S. Brewer (where I also got the statistics from) "Endings are even more various and harder to classify. They are also apparently harder to write well". Here are the statistics for endings: 31% speech, 10% ironic (in novels the percentage is lower), 8% main character dies, 7% a symbolic final event (a door closing, a journey ends, etc), 5% a question, 4% "author comment", 1% wedding (in novels the percentage is far higher). Over 15% end with a sentence of 5 words or less.

After Poe, surprize endings became popular and influential - "Though surprise endings as not ... numerically dominant in the whole of any writer's work until O.Henry, the effect of the surprise endings on short-story structure and on the popularity of the form extended beyond the actual number of examples". The importance of the ending can be so strong that it affects the shape of the whole story. Even authors who don't exclusively use twist-endings may be very end-oriented in their writing procedures - "If I didn't know the ending of a story, I wouldn't begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph, my last page first, and then I go back and work towards it" Katherine Anne Porter (in Writers at Work: "The Paris Review Interviews", p.151)

As an example of how closely the ending and beginning can be tied together, here's the end of the story from "Yours"

Mrs Wilson winked at her daughter and said: "So he's not such a bad catch after all!"

Sometimes the ending refers back to the beginning even more explicitly. Here's the start and end of "The Joy Luck Club" by Amy Tan

  • My father has asked me to be the fourth corner of the Joy Luck Club. I am to replace my mother, whose seat at the mah jong table has been empty since she died two months ago.
  • And I am sitting at my mother's place at the mah jong table, on the East, where things begin.

More often, the beginning prefigures the end - symbolically maybe, a broken dish fore-shadowing the infidelity revealed in the punch-line. I think it's always worth reading the beginning again after reaching the end of a story. Here's the start of "Words from a Glass Bubble" by Vanessa Gebbie - an award winning modern story.

The Virgin Mary spoke to Eva Duffy from a glass bubble in a niche half way up the stairs. Eva, the post woman, heard the Virgin's words in her stomach more than in her ears, and she called her the VM. The VM didn't seem to mind. She was plastic, six inches high, hand painted, and appeared to be growing out of a mass of very green foliage and very pink flowers, more suited to a fish tank. She held a naked Infant Jesus who stretched his arms out to Eva and mouthed, every so often ... "Carry?"

And here's the final paragraph. It has many echoes of the first - checklist the first paragraph's items to see what happened to them. Identify themes.

Then, there was a sound. The cry of a buzzard as it might have been made by a small boy, a thin little cry that rose triumphant into the post woman's house, echoed round the stairs and floated out of the open windows to disappear among the whispers of wind in the night sky

Open Endings - and Beginnings

As the 20th century progressed, the trend was not to end with an explicit authorial comment (which is one reason why stories more often end in speech nowadays), and not to link the start too tightly to the ending. Increasingly, endings are "open" rather than "closed".

William Gibson's "Neuromancer" ends with a section entitled "Coda: Departure and Arrival" which sums up what many endings do - some mysteries are solved, but others are begun.

Here are some typical modern endings which give a feeling of closure but leave some doors open - new relationship, new realisations, new starts.

  • And that was what she remembered. That was what she always said to Queenie later, how all the future had come flooding in with him, through the open door.
  • Later, the plane makes a slow circle over New York City, and on it two men hold hands, eyes closed, and breathe in unison.
  • Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.

Just as some authors chopped the traditional beginning from a story, so some chopped off the ending, but even stories (by Barthelme, Coover, etc) without conventional closure exploit "closure signals" (repetition, change of tone or voice, zoom-out) to prepare the reader for the end.

Nowadays the expectation of closure is so low that the climax of a text can be the moment when the theme or genre is revealed. Beginnings are becoming more ambiguous too. Here are some initial paragraphs. Trying to guess the genre is hard enough let alone guessing the ending

  • Once a mouse family lived under the floor of a playroom. There was a mother mouse and a father mouse. There was a big sister mouse called Mousikin and a baby brother mouse called Little Mouse.
  • Once upon a time there was a little old woman, who lived in her council flat, and was as lonely as lonely could be. She had been retired from her old job at Superdrug when her hearing seemed to be on the wane. She had accepted her glass clock meekly, and the last-day paper cup of fizzy wine, then cried on the bus all the way home.
  • So Pete Crocker, the sheriff of Barnstable County, which was the whole of Cape Cod, came into the Federal Ethical Suicide Parlor in Hyannis one May afternoon - and he told the two six-foot hostesses there that they weren't to be alarmed, but that a notorious nothinghead named Billy the Poet was believed headed for the Cape.
  • We defended the city as best we could. The arrows of the Comanches came in clouds. The war clubs of the Comanches clattered on the soft, yellow pavements. There were earthworks along the Boulevard Mark Clark and the hedges had been laced with sparkling wire. People were trying to understand. I spoke to Sylvia. 'Do you think this is a good life?' The table held apples, books, long-playing records. She looked up. 'No.'
  • I'm Push the bully, and what I hate are new kids and sissies, dumb kids and smart, rich kids, poor kids, kids who wear glasses, talk funny, show off, patrol boys and wise guys and kids who pass pencils and water the plants - and cripples, especially cripples. I love nobody loved.