Friday, 30 November 2018

The state of UK poetry

In a recent Guardian article Sandeep Parmar noted the poetry concerns of some writers -

  • "contemporary poetry is in a rotten state,” according to Rose Tremain in the TLS. “Having binned all the rules, most poets seem to think that rolling out some pastry-coloured prose, adding a sprinkling of white space, then cutting it up into little shapelets will do. I’m fervently hoping for something better soon.”
  • In a recent interview, poet and editor Robin Robertson also railed against current poetry, which for him divides into two extremes: “light verse” or “incomprehensible”

These are time-worn moans. I have some sympathies with them but no more so than decades ago. Here are some extracts from poetry publications I've recently read -

  • "it's not until we quiet again that we clock the car we're in is not in fact the thing we thought was moving" (Sam Buchan-Watts). Not even good prose.
  • "Like others/ you wait/ in queues/ for the drought to end" (Arundhathi Subramaniam). Four line-breaks disguise nothing
  • "And love grows angel in the gloom/ with your calls through resistant stars" (Ishion Hutchinson). Eh?

To those complaints could be added

Poetry's commonly attacked from without for being prose chopped up or for being difficult. Are these criticism from within more worrying? (Tremain may not be a poet, but she's been part of the Literary and Creative Writing scene for years). I think they signal a shift in the nature of the literary world, and of the mainstream.

  • The eco-system - As more Creative Writing students graduate, the number of potential literary readers and writers increases. Thanks to the internet, they no longer form an archipelago. Members of a minority need no longer live in the same geographic community to sustain each other.
    Readers and writers are more in touch with each other. Writers run workshops, attend festivals, and engage via social media.
  • The poetry - The notion of "mainstream" has often been contested. Here are two attempts to describe it
    • "The conventional or mainstream poem today is a univocal, more or less plain-spoken, short narrative often culminating in a sort of epiphany. Such a form must convey an impression of closure and wholeness no matter what it says", Rae Armantrout, "Sagetrieb", 11.3 (1992)
    • "the [mainstream] work appears spoken in a natural voice; there must be a sense of urgency and immediacy to this 'affected naturalness' so as to make it appear that one is reexperiencing the original event; there must be a 'studied artlessness' that gives a sense of spontaneous personal sincerity; and there must be a strong movement toward emphatic closure", Charles Altieri, "Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry", CUP, 1984, p.10
    If by "mainstream" people mean accessible poetry which has literary credibility, then I think the old mainstream has been squeezed. Perhaps once upon a time there was (as viewed from within) a majority style and several minority styles, but now more than ever that "mainstream poetry" is one style amongst many others.

So I can see why writers might feel that poetry has changed, that mainstream poetry is under attack. It would be an exaggeration to claim that there is a new mainstream, but a new shared set of influences may be leading to a loose consensus. For a start, the building blocks of poetry have changed. These books indicate the shift -

  • Close calls with nonsense (Stephen Burt). An unpreachy look at the factors and fashions involved with recent North American poetry.
  • How to write a poem (John Redmond) A book for beginners that provides building blocks more in keeping with contemporary poetry - a Jori Graham poem is successfully discussed

The new mainstream has more styles, and is written by more types of people. I see this as enrichment rather than dilution. It's as likely to involve Oulipo wordplay as Confessionalism (and one person is more likely to write either). It may have one foot in academia, though the other might be on local radio for National Poetry Day. I don't think "The Poetry Review" represents it. Magazines like "Under the Radar" may.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

The state of the UK/Eire short story

Suppose you were asked about the state of sport rather than short stories - what would be a reliable indicator? How many gold medals were won in the Olympics? How many people jog? How many people watch football? How many pages of media are devoted to sport?

Judged by these sorts of criteria, stories aren't doing well. When did you last read one? When did you last buy a story book? Can you name any living story writers?

Every so often there are articles about the revival of the short story. They're soon followed by articles about false dawns. Alice Munro's Nobel win didn't turn things round. Nor did Tom Hanks' book.

Why are there so few outlets? I asked a publisher about this and he said that short-stories are like poems - only people who write them read or buy them. His magazine's guidelines say "Our preference is for literary fiction". Ambit Magazine says "We’re not afraid of genre fiction, but it should probably have an interesting relationship to the genre at hand – a straight-ahead detective or horror story probably won’t appear." Maybe it’s only literary short stories that are suffering. When demand for them slackens, so does supply. Why write stories if nobody reads them?

All is not lost. The BBC is trying to generate interest with the £15,000 National Short Story Award and the Young Writers' Award. Hensher in the introduction to his latest anthology suggested that competitions would be ok if the rest of the story eco-system were healthy. A few more story collections are being reviewed - see Fen by Daisy Johnson (Vintage, 2017). More small presses are dipping their toes into story collections. And Flash is a growth sector, though surely one can't really compare a 250-word piece with an Alice Munro story. It's like comparing Twenty20 cricket with test matches.

But is England the best place to be? Dublin has "The Irish Writing Centre" at 19 Parnell Square with a shop and many events. Edinburgh's Scottish Storytelling Centre is along the Golden Mile. England's catching up - the National Writing Centre has recently started in Norwich - see https://nationalcentreforwriting.org.uk/. Its NCW Podcast is worth subscribing to.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Aldeburgh poetry

I've always intended to go to more literature festivals, in particular those that specialise in poetry and Flash. Especially this year I regret not being able to get to the Aldeburgh poetry festival. It's not so far away from where I live, but it seems always to be on a weekend when I have to work.

2018's festival is curated by Poetry School / Paul Stephenson and involves many people I've talked to (albeit briefly), including Helena Nelson, Julia Webb, Chrissy Williams, Fiona Moore, Robert Peake, George Szirtes, Jane Commane and Matthew Stewart.

Also there's a session entitled "A Cambridge Quartet of First Collections" with Rebecca Watts, Adam Crothers, Claudine Toutoungi, and Alex Wong. I've seen some of them perform locally though I've not read their books.

I suspect that much of the valuable interaction at these events happens outside of the standard sessions. Next year my work commitments will be changing, so who knows, I might manage to visit for an extended period and imbibe the atmosphere.

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Neglected writers - Hempel and Berlin

I've a list of writers that I want to read. Some of them have been rather neglected by readers at large. Here are two whose books I've recently found -

Amy Hempel

"The Dog of Marriage" (Quercus) contains all her stories up to 2008. 400 pages for £9.99. A bargain. Here's a sample (the narrator's a widow, Nashville's a dog)

Here's a trick I found for how to finally get some sleep. I sleep in my husband's bed. That way the empty bed I look at is my own.
Cold nights I pull his socks on over my hands. I read in his bed. People still write from when Flea had his column. He did a pet Q and A for the newspaper. The new doctor sends along letters for my amusement. Here's one I liked - a man thinks his cat is homosexual.
The letter begins, "My cat Frank (not his real name) ..."
In addition to Flea's socks, I also wear his watch.
It's the way we tell each other.
At bedtime, I think how Nashville slept with Flea. She must have felt to him like a sack of antlers. I read about a marriage breaking up because the man let his Afghan sleep in the marriage bed.
I had my own bed. I slept in it alone, except for those times when we needed - not sex - but sex was how we got there.
(p.21)

It's fast, with jokes and feeling. Names mentioned in the book's introduction came to my mind too - the wit of Lorrie Moore, the concision of Lydia Davis (some of Hempel's pieces are a page long, a few are much shorter). I suppose she's a bit of a writer's writer.

My favourite pieces include "San Francisco", "In the cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried" (her most famous piece), and "Weekend".

Lucia Berlin

"A manual for cleaning women" (Picador, 2016) has 43 stories (about 400 pages) for £9.99. She had a lively start to life (3 failed marriages and 4 sons by the time she was 28) and was an alcoholic for decades. From the age of 10 she had scoliosos, which was often painful. For a while she was an elective mute. Her mother had alcohol problems and may well have killed herself. Her output was intermittent - she did many jobs because she needed the money - but she ended up being a creative writing prof, dying in 2004.

As the introduction to the book notes, her stories don't hang around. The first story begins in a laundromat. In the second paragraph the narrator recalls Mrs Armitage from a previous laundromat she visited - "I was a young mother then and washed diapers on Thursday mornings. She lived above me, in 4-C. One morning at the laundry she gave me a key and I took it. She said that if I didn't see her on Thursdays it meant she was dead and would I please go find her body. That was a terrible thing to ask of someone; also then I had to do my laundry on Thursdays". It's zappy, with the speed of stand-up or Flash. Indeed, there are pieces which are little longer than a page. All I know of her life is from the notes in this book, but that's enough for me to view the pieces as thinly disguised autobiography - overlapping attempts at using the source material of her life.

There aren't many happy stories. In "Carmen" for example Mona is living with Noodles, an addict. She has kids and she's pregnant. She agrees to be a drug-mule, flies off, nearly gets raped, returns with a condom of heroin. Her waters break as Noodles tries the new supplies. She gets herself to hospital, has a baby girl, but the baby dies moments after birth.

"Point of View" , "A manual for cleaning women", "Toda Luna, Todo Año", "So Long", "Wait a minute" and "Homing" are my favourites, though they're not all stories.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Poets on form

I've done a write-up of "Ecstatic occasions, expedient forms", David Lehman (ed) (Univ of Michigan, 1996) in which poets explain their forms. A mixed bag of scientific and mystical explanations -

  • "Since it is not my custom to capitalize the initial word of each line, I decided to experiment with this convention"
  • "it's foolish to think a line should break so that the reader might rest or so an end word can shiver and throb in order to call more attention to itself"
  • "I broke the poem into quatrains for the purpose of making a better shape on the page"
  • "an eight-syllable line with no regular meter, no counting of stresses. It is almost free verse broken into an arbitrary length. ... I like this form because it leaves the musical cadence almost entirely free to follow the content. ... yet has some of the surface tension of regularity. "

etc. Some of the poets decided not to mention the form even though it was overt.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

The Flash Fiction supply chain

Production

More Flash is being written than ever before - by poets (realising that they already write some Flash), by story writers (who can't find markets for their usual pieces) and by an increasing number of specialists.

Distribution

Literary magazines are increasingly willing to print Flash, and the number of specialist magazines is increasing. The market's big enough to support genre outlets like Flashback Fiction. Short story books often include Flash nowadays, and some authors produce books of Flash.

Consumption

My impression is that both poetry and prose readers are more receptive to Flash nowadays. If a poetry reader says they like Armitage's "Seeing Stars" or a prose reader likes Borges they can hardly turn their noses up at Flash.

Bottlenecks?

What are the limits to growth of this chain? Are there too few respected outlets? Is the market saturated? Firstly it's worth pointing out that many Flash readers are writers, so it's more of a loop than a chain. Limiting the number of writers will limit the number of readers. Also, Flash grew when the web was already mature, so Flash readers are used to the idea of the best work not necessarily being on paper, so the cost of producing paper magazines isn't a constraint.

An experiment

During August, Spelk has printed a piece of Flash daily, at least doubling its output. I don't think quality has been diluted, and judging by the Comments and Likes, the market is far from being saturated. So perhaps the bottleneck is distribution. Maybe there's space for more Flash magazines, even though Everyday Fiction already prints stories daily, and many other magazines already exist.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Who do you write for?

When you're pondering over whether to keep a line in a poem, do you ever ask yourself if the editor of "Poetry Review" would like it? Or perhaps you wonder what your poetry workshop colleagues would say? I can imagine people disliking this, describing it as "writing for the market". It sounds grubby, but in the poetry world, "market" doesn't have capitalist implications. Essentially, the market is composed of your peers. Pre-empting their criticism is better than belatedly learning from a history of failure.

The phrase "target audience" also has unsavoury associations. For at least part of the writing process I have a target audience in mind. It comes into play for example when I'm wondering whether to spell out an allusion. This "target audience" is perhaps nothing more than a personification of my inner critic - self-criticism is no bad thing.

Perhaps you just enjoy writing for its own sake. It gives you pleasure, the way that singing in the bath gives pleasure to some people. You might decide that you enjoy performing, so you try reading at an open-mic. You don't go down well. You go to workshops and soon gain the impression that your style is old fashioned. You can't get into magazines. If you were really writing for the fun of it (being "true to yourself") such a reception shouldn't deter you from writing on, but there might have been a lingering hope that you were an undiscovered talent. Of course, if you don't keep up with the work of your peers it's no surprise that your quality assurance isn't like theirs. You don't read other people's stuff in case it affects the uniqueness, purity, and authenticity of your voice. But where did you get your voice from if not from other poets? By reading other poets you can discover your influences - maybe even break free.

Singing in the bath may mean that dishes are left unwashed, but you wash them later. Self-indulgence is only a problem when others are involved. I think people need to be somewhat public spirited at workshops if they're going to get the most from them - interested in others' work and open to the possibility of changing one's own poems.