Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Prose/Poetry - ten comments

  1. Most of the time I don't classify texts - I just read and enjoy them.
  2. If I buy a novel and it turns out to be haiku, I'd ask for my money back. If I enter a poetry competition and the winning entry looks like a Daily Mirror sports report I'd be grumpy.
  3. Judging by many book lovers I know, the poetry/prose divide matters. Even experienced prose readers/writers often can't abide poetry. In books with mixed poetry and prose (John Updike wrote one) half the book would be waste of money for them.
  4. Conventionally, if people have to classify a text as prose or poetry, they look at the vocabulary, sound effects, shape on the page, discontinuities, length etc. Clearly there are grey areas, and the classification shifts over the centuries, but for many texts the classification is clear enough.
  5. People often classify so that they know how to interpret the text. Poetic features lend themselves to a poetry mode of reading - tolerance of ambiguity, awareness of linguistic effects etc.
  6. When an author asserts that a text is "Poetry", the reader's likely to start reading it in a "poetry-reading" mode. If they discover that reading it that way is inappropriate, they might shift their approach, wondering what the author's game is. If they're a poetry judge, they might play safe and reject the piece categorically.
  7. In the last decade or so, there's been an increasing amount of outlets for short texts, bridging the gap between prose and poetry. 20 years ago, a short anecdotal piece with a moral twist at the end had to be presented as a free-form poem to get published. Now we have Flash, etc. In the past anything with a form (e.g. abcedarian, shopping list) or a "Found" piece could only be published as a poem. That's no longer true.
  8. Poetry magazines are more open to poetry-without-linebreaks than they used to be. And it seems to be a rule for debut collections that they should contain at least one piece without line-breaks.
  9. Book classifications are looser now. Novels like Max Porter's "Grief is the thing with Feathers" has many poetic aspects (indeed, I'd say it was more poetic than Rankine's "Citizen", that won poetry prizes). Saunders' novel "Lincoln in the Bardo" has passages of multiple, unattributed voices.
  10. Consequently nowadays writers have more freedom, and readers need to be more agile. With freedom come responsibility. For example, I think there's less excuse for producing texts that look like "prose with line-breaks". And readers are less likely to give poetic license to a work which though presented as poetry, seems to be like prose - they're likely to switch to a prose mode of interpretation. Experimental poetry may be fairly mainstream literary prose.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Nine Arches Press

With issue 25 of "Under the radar" just out, and another book launched (one of 11 for 2020), Nine Arches Press continues going from strength to strength. Jane Commane's at the helm, but one gets the feeling that many people contribute to the success of the venture. I'm not trying to be comprehensive below, just trying to give a flavour of the habitat that NAP has engendered, so apologies in advance to anybody I've omitted.

  • Magazine - "Under the Radar" is edited by Jane, Maria Taylor, Matt Merritt, and occasional guest editors. Reviewing is taken seriously - 15 pages of 87 in issue 25. Short fiction hangs on in there - Tania Hershman etc.
  • Books - Some are promoted as being rather issues-based: chasing the Zeitgeist? But Rishi Dastidar's work is avant-garde. In fact, the work spans the poetry spectrum - one of many spectra that NAP spans. There are books by professors and by the "2019 Young People's Laureate for London". Publication by NAP helps the authors, though it's reciprocal - the author's other successes enhance the brand. TS.Eliot-shortlisted Jacqueline Saphra recently appeared on Radio 3's "The Verb" program. And of course, Jo Bell's been on TV.
  • Mentoring - Jane mentors in several capacities. I've found their creative writing books (most recently "The Craft") useful as self-mentoring aids.
  • Events - Venue-based events are on hold. There's an online Book group series - see Readings with Q&As (I watched Julia Webb's recent one, which went well)
  • Videos - See the poetry films
  • Social Media - See Facebook and Twitter

The press illustrates (and might even lead) many current trends in the poetry word - inclusion, breaking boundaries, Stage/Page integration, Collaboration, etc. My only gripe is that they use "unflinching" in their advertising.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Mixed opinions

Many years ago I.A. Richards wrote "Practical Criticism" (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1929) in which he analysed the comments of a group of students who blind-read poetry. P.Hobsbaum in "Theory of Criticism" also covered this issue. He suggested that a good poem can support many interpretations (indeed, benefits from them) whereas a bad poem can't.

In a local poetry group I'm involved with, we've been anonymously exchanging poems. I like the variety of types of comment that such an exercise produces.

Orbis Magazine prints many reader comments about the poems in its previous issue. More interesting is when (as in our exercise) the entries are anonymous and there's more than one opinion. Disagreements are inevitable and instructive.

  • Years ago, Stand ran a poetry competition with two judges who disagreed with each other so much that in the end there were two sets of prizewinners.
  • The North Magazine has a section where 2 poets comment on an anonymous piece by a published poet. They can strongly disagree too. Sharon Black, in The North No.57, wrote of some stanzas "To be honest they leave me cold ... I'm not moved, I'm not touched, it's telling me nothing that I couldn't get from switching on an old episode of East Enders”.

Famous writers also disagree about each other -

  • "I am reading Proust for the first time. Very poor stuff. I think he was mentally defective", Evelyn Waugh
  • "[Tennyson] had the finest ear, perhaps, of any English poet; he was also undoubtedly the stupidest", W.H. Auden
  • "You know I can't stand Shakespeare's plays, but yours are even worse", Tolstoy (to Chekhov)

One wonders what really goes on behind the scenes when there’s a committee of judges. My guess is that judges are carefully chosen, and they’re aware that if they cause trouble they won’t be asked to judge again.

See my Mixed reviews article for more.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Whose line-breaks are they anyway?

  • Dawn Gorman in a review (The Interpreter's House 66, p.89) wrote that "you notice the spaces - blank pages, many short poems, short lines, four clear sections - there is a sense of breathing here, an opportunity to take stock".
  • Katy Evans-Bush in "Forgive the Language" writes of Sharon Olds' poems that "Putting the stress on the first word of the line below, [the line-break] creates a sense of urgency as well as hesitancy, and disorientates the reader, who then grabs for the emotional content as for a lifeline"

This common, submissive attitude to white space puzzles me rather. When I read a difficult text I stop when I feel like it, even if there are no spaces. If there are blank pages in an easy text I skip quickly over them. Spaces don't make me think. They make me suspicious. I adapt to quirks like Olds' after a few lines, as I would a strange font, American spelling, etc. Later, looking back, I wonder what their purpose was.

It's all too easy to insert line-breaks that create tension by breaking the form or the grammatical unit. If prose writers (or advertisement writers) used the same methods it would seem crass. Ditto for provoking premature parsing (e.g. "I'm dying/ to meet you."). Another problem is that once free-versers employ meaningful line-breaks they feel impelled to use meaningless ones too, driven as much by the love of rectangles as by any thought of tension. If you try to get the sense of every line-break, you're in for a tough time.

Tension in prose can easily be missed if you read it faster than you read poetry. I once ran a "Slow Reading" workshop on a Graham Greene story. After each paragraph we discussed what questions were raised, what mysteries were solved. It begins with "She found me in the evening under trees that grew outside the village. I had never cared for her and would have hidden myself if I'd seen her coming. She was to blame, I'm certain, for her son's vices. If they were vices". What genre of story is this? Where and when is it set? How old are the characters? Ask 3 questions that you think will later be answered.

Some readers don't ask themselves such questions as they go along, missing out on tension/release. I think poetry readers more often do, provoked perhaps by line-breaks.

Form creates the most obviously breakable expectations. The subtlety of Greene's tensions is that not only might readers miss them, but the tensions might be relieved in the next paragraph, the final paragraph, or never.

Friday, 1 May 2020

Visibility in the literary scene

Writers as famous as Tartt can go years without producing a book and still be part of the scene - they're talked about in their absence. Other writers aren't so lucky. One might think that the situation's easier for poets than for story writers - they can place single poems in magazines, ticking over - but there aren't that many opportunities available in good magazines, and lead times can be many months. Meanwhile, new graduates from Creative Writing courses flood the market. Consequently there's a temptation to manage one's image. If you stand still you'll get left behind.

In The Poet Tasters Ben Etherington wrote about the Australian scene, pointing out that "a lingering sense of hobbyism can afflict the vocation. Just about anyone who has decided that poetry is their thing, and who has enough private means and persistence, can be confident of edging their way into a scene like Australia’s. Even long-established poets can be nagged by the feeling that the aesthetic communities from which they gain recognition only reflect back the effort they put in; miss a few readings, take a break from publishing, leave an editorial post and you and your work might disappear."

I can think of a few poets for whom that nagging feeling was confirmed by what happened after their death.

In a world where "who you know" matters, you don't want your prospective publishers to express surprise that you're still around. Even if you manage to get a book published, it's hard to get reviewed and make a splash if you don't already have a following.

Blogs or review writing might help in this respect if you're too busy to teach or judge. Also useful are appearances at launches, festivals and readings even if you're not performing. It's worth trying to maintain a local reputation even if the national scene is beyond your reach.

Monday, 20 April 2020

Working from home

About 25 years ago, with paternal leave looming, I set myself up to work from home, remotely logging in using a modem that shared the line with the phone. If the phone was used while I was connected, I got logged out.

That was pre-Web. Now many more facilities are available without having to use command lines and Terminal windows. A browser's all you need. Video links have added a new dimension - I've used whatsapp, MS Teams and Zoom in the last week alone. Now that files and whiteboards can be shared, online seminars are easier.

But really, I've only dabbled with home-working up to now. I'm beginning to experience the problems that people who work full-time from home complain about - finding a place to work, separating work from family life, isolation, etc. I still can't bring myself to use Facebook and Twitter for small talk, though I wouldn't rule it out.

The writing groups I'm involved with can't meet physically. We tried to organise a Zoom session but there weren't enough takers so we're exchanging files by e-mail. As coordinator I'm trying to collate the comments to the anonymised texts, which is interesting. Ten poets are bound to disagree on a piece. However, several of them might decide that the same lines require comment.

Friday, 10 April 2020

The movie of the book

These movies of poems in "Moving Parts" and elsewhere hark back to 2005 when I first owned a digital camera. File sizes and speeds were still worth worrying about then, and I used only free software, so the results don't compare at all well with many more recent YouTube offerings. The audio is especially bad, so I suggest you buy the booklet

For comparison, see Tony William's far classier "Video-poem of The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street"

Or Matthew Stewart's - Tasting Notes or Nine Arches Press on Youtube.