Sunday, 23 February 2020

Free Verse 2020

The photos I take at Free Verse differ little from year to year. It's not all the same publishers. I didn't notice any trends, though maybe there are more books that are hand-crafted. If you've never been to this event you really should go - the small press world is buzzing. I bought the Flash issue of Lighthouse.

Each year after visiting Free Verse I try to vary the rest of the day. This year I visited the nearby Sir John Soanes house, then whizzed over to Freud's house, the Museum of Childhood, Foyles, and the Wellcome collection. Freud's couch (and the couch where he died) are in the house. He didn't live there long, but his daughter Anna did. The shop's interesting too.

We've recently completed a 3D puzzle of London with over 1100 pieces.

The Museum of Childhood had many toys that I had (a few are still in the loft), and many others I remember. They also had a big Rachel Whiteread piece called "Place (village)".

Recent story acceptances have got me in the mood for writing, and I managed to add 500 words to an meta-SF story while on the train. I also starting reading the 2019 edition of Best American Short Stories, which I bought in Foyles.

Monday, 17 February 2020

Finding time

I have a full-time non-literary job - sometimes more than full time. I have a family. And I have other interests. I can't always find the time for reading let alone writing. It's a problem that many people have of course. Writing guides say that if you really want to write you can always find the time. But it's also true that if I really wanted to do the vacuum cleaning or get someone a birthday gift or proof-read a document at work I could find the time for that.

Larkin, who had a full-time job, claimed that he needed only an hour a day for writing. I'm not sure I believe him. Besides, it's not so much the amount of time but the clashes that matter. If I suddenly have an idea I'd like to develop, what can I do if guests are about to arrive, or a meeting's about to start? Plus my mental reserves aren't limitless. If I've been wracking my brains at work all day I don't feel like winding down by reading the small-print of submission guidelines. I'm not good at attending readings either. Others seem to have the freedom to dash around the country for launches etc. I have trouble turning up to local events, even when there's the lure of open-mic.

If I know in advance that I'm going to have some time free, I try to plan accordingly. Alas, more often than not my inspirational moods don't sync with the free time. The same usually goes for residential courses too.

Carrying a notepad around helps, as does being able to assemble fragments. Audio book might make me more efficient too. Just occasionally I can combine work and play. But mostly I cope by cutting corners, and doing nothing as well as I could have. I feel I've plateau'd in the things I've tried. There are no longer any quick wins - significant progress will require significant time investment. It's just the way things are. I've noticed already that I'm compensating by remembering past successes more than planning future ones - see my Illustrated CV. And unexpectedly I'm gaining pleasure from the successes of people I know.

Monday, 10 February 2020

Poetry, Beauty and Truth

The beauty/truth debate is one I try not to get involved with because both the terms are slippery. I tend to be on the side of those - Bunting perhaps - who think that Truth, as normally understood isn't really what poetry's about. A truth may be most neatly expressed in poetry, but if it can only be expressed in poetry I think it's illusory.

Some articles

  • Truth and honesty in poetry (Chris Edgoose) - when something evoked in a poem strikes us as ‘true’, is it in fact not just highlighting a shared experience? We might argue that there is nothing universally ‘true’ about it at all, it’s more like a stand up comic pointing out something amusing that we both recognise
  • Some thoughts on ‘Truth’ in poetry (Roy Marshall) - If I read a poem I like, or love, I generally find myself recognising aspects of life as I’ve experienced it embodied in that poem; I feel ‘Yes, this is how it is, this is what we do, how we are with each other, this is how we feel and think and navigate joy and frustration and hate. This is true.’
    In order for this to work, for a poem to engage with emotion and experience in a way that I recognise, the language of the poem has to be working consistently towards telling that particular emotional truth ... None of this means that a poem needs to be realistic. ... For me, a poem needs to contain emotional truth. ... Perhaps I’m interested in poems as ‘empathy capsules’; little units of meaning that can generate an empathetic response in the reader.

Some quotes

  • "An artist's allegiance is to the truth, not the facts, and facts are often the things you have to change to make the poem more truthful", Don Paterson, "Smith: A Reader's Guide to the Poetry of Michael Donaghy"
  • "What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth", Keats, letter to Benjamin Bailey
  • "["Beauty is truth, truth beauty"] strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem, and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue. And I suppose that Keats meant something by it, however remote his truth and his beauty may have been from these words in ordinary use. ... The statement of Keats seems to me meaningless: or perhaps the fact that it is grammatically meaningless conceals another meaning from me", T.S. Eliot, "Dante", 1929
  • "Art arises out of our desire for both beauty and truth and our knowledge that they are not identical", Auden, "The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays", 1963, p.336.
  • "Every poem starts out as either true or beautiful. Then you try to make the true ones seem beautiful and the beautiful ones true", Larkin, "Larkin at 60", p.113.
  • "poetry is seeking to make not meaning but beauty", Basil Bunting, Stand V8.2, p.28
  • "From beauty no road leads to reality ... The power of beauty affects the naked being, as though he had never lived", Hannah Arendt, "Rahel Varnhagen", p.88-89
  • "Beauty reveals everything because it expresses nothing", Wilde
  • "although it is possible to reach what I have stated to be the first end of art, the representation of facts, without reaching the second, the representation of thoughts, yet it is altogether impossible to reach the second with having previously reached the first ... no artist can be graceful, imaginative, or original, unless he be truthful", Ruskin, "Modern Painters", Vol III, p.133-9
  • "Art is not truth. It is a lie that makes us realize truth", Braque
  • "In the traditional idea of form we naturally find beauty as the pacifying meeting between the visible and the true", F. Carmagnola, "Parentesi perdute", Guerrini & Associati, 1998, p.44 (my translation)
  • "We always take it for granted that all that is beautiful is art, and that all art is beautiful ... This identification of art with beauty is the root of all the difficulties of judgement", Herbert Read, "The Meaning of Art", 1955

Monday, 3 February 2020

ACE – the next ten years

One way or another, many of us benefit from Arts Council England’s funding. The events we attend, the magazines we buy and the writers we meet receive funding. So I read with interest ACE’s recently launched consultation document.

They write that “By 2030 we anticipate that we will be investing in organisations and people that differ, in many cases, from those that we support today.” They aim to encourage “every one of us to express our creativity”, noting that “opportunities to experience culture and creativity often depend on background and postcode”.

Reading between the lines, my guess is that there’ll be more community-based art projects, more library based activities (using volunteers), and organisers will have to conduct more surveys to prove their commitment to diversity. Perhaps there'll be more tapestries of our house like this one - currently in our local library.

Their research noted that “that many creative practitioners and leaders of cultural organisations report a retreat from innovation, risk-taking and sustained talent development”. It isn't clear that this is being treated as a problem. As they point out, quality is difficult to access. Quantity isn’t though, and I’m sure they’ll be able to increase participation in the arts.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Constable's Haywain

Over Xmas one of the unfinished old poems I managed to re-write concerned Constable's "The Haywain". By chance last week I visited the scene of the painting, Flatford. They showed what an early version of the painting looked like.

In my poem I mentioned people in the field - they're in the painting. I also wrote (because it suited my poem, not because I'd done any research) that the mill had gone and only a cottage remained. Alas, that's not true. Another poem will have to be abandoned.

Much else has changed though. Trees obstruct views, and the water level's different. It remains a pleasant little hamlet.

The urinals are decorative too, with a photo of the place rather than a Constable painting. The watery scene helps people with shy bladder syndrome I suppose.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Notes about "Together"

I had this story published a while ago. I've written better stories, but I think it's neat. It does a lot in about 350 words.

Her father used to work on battleships, said how they had more than a million parts. She showed him her iPhone, saying that it had over a million parts too.
      During a punting party her mobile sinks into the river. Friends take turns to feel for it with the metal end of the pole. When they tap something hard a boy dives in, follows the pole down through the murky water and retrieves it. She shakes it out, opens it, leaves the pieces in the sun to dry. An hour later it’s fine — “it needed a clean,” she said. There’s a new message for her — from the boy, asking her out.
      Later they share a flat. While he’s off at another conference, she takes his precious bicycle apart, down to the last little bolt, puts everything into a cardboard box, adds some bits from his spares to confuse him, then gift-wraps it.
      Some people — and he was one of them — see metaphors everywhere. He liked the idea of probing the depths for a way to communicate with the person beside you, of reconstructing the present. He promises not to spend so much time studying alone or cycling on Sundays with his club. She feels guilty. Perhaps he was right, perhaps she’d not got over her father’s death.
      And yet she doesn’t help him with the bicycle. It takes him a whole afternoon. He’s drunk by the time she returns from shopping. She doesn’t like that — nowadays he only does it to stop himself getting bored or angry.
      “What do you think?” he asks. “It would have been easier with a manual but it’s good as new now. You ok?”
      She unpacks the groceries.
      “The club’s cycling to Broxton tomorrow. Maybe you could meet us there in the car?”
      She’d cleaned each little part of his bicycle with a toothbrush.
      “Follow the A14 until you see the Broxton sign,” he says. “You can’t miss it.”
      Even with a map she misses it by miles; he phones, failing to get her.

It manages to have a narrative flow while sustaining some themes -

  • Several items have pieces - battleships, phones, bicycles. Not all of them can be mended. It ends with the title "together" coming apart.
  • There are several modes of transport - punts, cars, bikes. The couple end up taking separate ones.
  • There are communication failures - first the phone miraculously works, then at the end it fails.
  • The punting and bicycle anecdotes are interesting in themselves. Why had she cleaned the parts?

Tuesday, 14 January 2020


I overuse the word "but" in both poetry and prose. I'm not the only one - when I read Margaret Drabble's "Jerusalem the Golden" I noticed on page 10 that it has a sequence of sentences which hinge on "but", "but", "but", "but", "but", "but" ... "nevertheless", "however, though", "though", "and yet".

I looked up alternatives ("although", "despite", "however", "yet", "nevertheless", etc). Using them helped a little. I then resorted to using alternative phrases in my work ("Having said that", "on the other hand", "even so", "for all his wealth, he was still sad", etc).

In a book about therapy I read about the technique of replacing "but" by the non-judgemental "and" - e.g. using "he's cute and he's a scientist" rather than "he's cute but he's a scientist". This challenges the underlying thought-pattern - the root of my stylistic problem. The underlying thesis-antithesis rhythm's ok for representing disappointment and dashed hopes (which is why Drabble uses it, I guess). It needn't be used at the sentence level so often though, even if the piece as a whole is structured along thesis, antithesis, (then maybe synthesis) lines.

Using "and" instead of "but" reduces structural detail and contrast, but opposition is the most simplistic of structures. Using "and" to make lists lets the reader decide what the contrasts are.