Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Precision and poetry

In poetry reviews and blurbs, the terms "precise" and "precision" are commonly seen though their use is often vague. They seem to be terms of praise hinting at 2 main concepts -

  • Accuracy - The ability to judge this rather depends on shared understandings and mimetic intent. Is Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" accurate? When Gerard Woodward writes "a toilet cistern refills like an old lady pouring tea" is he accurate? If you see a fuzzy painting of a landscape, it could be the result of the artist's lack of attention to detail or an accurate depiction of a foggy day. How is one supposed to know?
  • Economy - "Precise" often means "small" or "clipped" - a small but significant detail. When an artist captures a face with a few brushstrokes we admire the precision. Economy in poetry tends to involve word-count rather than line-count. 10 words spread over 5 lines is more likely to be considered "precise" than a 10-word sentence. Neither is the time taken by the reader taken into account. If twice as many words mean that a reader understands in half the time, there's a case for saying that the longer version is more efficient, more economic if the reader's time is taken into account.

I think the economy of the image, more than its exactness, is what provokes the use of "precision". It's like "precision bombing" - a single, well-aimed striking image can be more effective than carpet bombing. Though many an image can be made to look significant by being isolated.

When I began researching to complete this article I discovered (not for the first time) that Jim Murdoch had already dealt with the topic in more depth than I can manage. As he points out, people often meant "concise" when they use "precise". The term was perhaps imported into literature when there was a trend for borrowing from technology - Futurism, Bauhaus, etc - but without the extremism of Minimalism. He also quotes Marianne Moore's "What is more precise than precision? Illusion". I think that even fuzziness has its uses -

  • One way to make something into art is to remove its purpose. A potter makes a cup so that someone may drink from it. Take away that use and viewers will look for other types of meaning. An instruction manual or a recipe can have its purpose blurred so that only the rhetoric remains.
  • A blurred image can be more potent that a "precise" one because the details may be irrelevant to the effect, and the audience can fill in details themselves if they need to, personalised. A black object at night is more scary if you can't see that it's a bush rather than a hunched figure. A photograph of Christopher Lee playing Dracula may be more effective if blurred so that you can't identify the actor, only the identifying characteristics of Dracula.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Cold Reading

When you write a review you'd like the author to describe you as empathetic and perceptive, someone who really understands what's inside the author's head. The experts at appearing to be insightful are people who give psychic readings. Rowland in "The full facts book of cold reading" explains some of the tricks, with examples - e.g. the 'Rainbow Ruse' where opposite traits are predicted, as in

  • "You can be a very considerate person, very quick to provide for others, but there are times ... when you recognise a selfish streak in yourself"

(p.32). Sounds familiar? How about

  • "Condensed, intellectually rigorous and challenging, but nevertheless readable and entertaining" (about Raymond Tallis)
  • "Her poems have both great delicacy and an undeniable toughness" (about Maura Dooley)

When you read out a poem you don't have long to convince the audience that you're worth attending to. Like a psychic's audience, the audience for poetry readings is often receptive, especially if you have appropriate credentials and behave according to the audience's expectations. The skeptic's dictionary points out that psychics' audiences are

  • inclined to find more meaning in a situation than there actually is
  • likely to remember the hits and forget the misses.
  • generally self-centered, have unrealistic views of themselves, and will generally accept claims about themselves that reflect how they wish to be.

Presenting a difficult poem is already flattering the audience whose self-image is enhanced (perhaps even mirrored) by finding meanings. Phrases that fail will be forgotten as long as there's the occasional striking success. The one thing performers mustn't do is shatter the illusion of meaning, or hint that it's all bluff. One doubter in the room can destroy the effect.

Another trick is to make an observation/prediction that seems surprising or insightful but isn't (the Barnum/Forer effect). A psychic reader suggesting that a person's father died with chest or abdomen problems is quite likely to be right. Similarly, a critic might suggest that a poet who uses rural settings has read Heaney.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

A few successes

In the last few weeks I've passed my "250 acceptances" milestone thanks to "New Walk", "London Grip" and "Orbis". I've also got into "Mill" (a Templar anthology) and "Quintet and other poets", an anthology from Cinnamon.

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 publish 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.