Thursday, 31 July 2014


On the weekend before we left I was sorting out old postcards in my late parents' house. I found this postcard from Istanbul. I think a relative must have ended up there in a war. By some miracle, our first hotel was just across the road from this scene.

After nightfall people sat and chatted the way they might in Italy. Gaza was the main news topic. Turkish flags were at half mast. Religion in Turkey seemed little more pervasive than in Italian villages a few decades ago, except that more women were dressed conservatively; that said, there were fewer Burkas than in London. Some mosques were little more than a 2 storey house with a minaret coming out of a corner. Though there was some segregation, much of the time it wasn't evident. In the evenings families were walking around, with many affectionate fathers holding babies or steering pushchairs.

These are the walls that kept the crusaders out. Recently, gipsies were evicted from this area. Looks like they're returning. Someone's using the land for crops.

We visited Gallipoli, saw some trenches. Once we'd crossed into Asia we saw several amphitheatres. This was one of the more impressive - at Ephesus I think. We saw the remaining column of an Ancient wonder of the world - the Temple of Artemis - and the rather confusing site of Troy, where Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar met.

These "cotton castles" and thermal pools in Pamukkale are beside the extensive Roman remains of Hierapolis which we walked around while the temperature was in the 40s. Russians posed in bikinis.

Back in Istanbul we were in the mood to buy tacky souvenirs, but it was holiday time, the end of Ramadan, and the Grand Bazaar was closed (we'd lost ourselves in it on an earlier trip). Allegedly it's full of Chinese goods anyway. Fortunately there was no shortage of other places open.

We did all the usual touristy things (though I bottled out of going to a Turkish Bath). The merchants were much less pro-active than in Egypt. The food was rather like Crete's though there was no pork. We saw many scrawny cats, not all of them alive.

If I hadn't seen The Basilica Cistern on TV we might not have bothered with it. It's an underground water storage tank with columns making it look like a subterranean cathedral. We saw silk threads spun, carpets being woven (I hadn't realised that carpets could change colour as they're rotated) and saw pancakes being made in the traditional way down a village track.

The variety contained within Hagia Sophia (features similar to Ravenna's combined with Islam) was mirrored in other aspects of life. Burgerking rubs shoulders with mosques. We went in a minibus with disco lights to a club that sold the usual cocktails. Cheddar cheese was in restaurants, and Vegemite sandwiches were at Gallipoli. The riverside houses we saw could have been beside Lake Como. As we went East I expected scenes from Borat's Kazakhstan. There were a few, but mainly the country seemed south-European. Outside Istanbul and Izmir were hills and hills of tower blocks. 50% of Turkey's 70+ million population is under 30.

Literature? I try to mention it in each blog post. There was a multi-tent bookfair in first square we visited. We found Istanbul's book market. We saw the Roman library in Ephesus, which once held 12,000 to 15,000 scrolls. We visited Pergamun where they invented parchment. I read "Riptide" issue 10, the latest issue of "The Interpreter's House", "The loneliness of the long distance runner" and "Slaughterhouse 5". I wrote about 100 words. Such a feeble writing urge isn't usually a good sign for me. I suspect I'll use Troy as a metaphor eventually.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Getting another publication out

People talk about the "difficult second album". It's the same with books. The follow-up to the debut book shows whether the first was a fluke, and whether the writer has any material left after having printed the collected best work of their life so far. I have 2 book[lets] to follow up - one poetry, the other prose - so my situation's doubly tricky. Two reasonable guidelines I've heard are

  • Wait until you have enough material - there's no rush
  • Wait until you've marketed and sold your earlier publications

In my case it's not clear that either guideline's been met. All the same, here are some possible future publications

  • A 2nd poetry pamphlet - Less mainstream than my first. I've already sent to publishers and pamphlet competitions. Got close once or twice.
  • A themed poetry pamphlet - Wordplay. Already sent to pamphlet competitions without success.
  • A poetry book - using a few poems from my first pamphlet along with material from the above pamphlets. Never sent out.
  • A 2nd story book - rejected once. It includes several previously published pieces, plus some prizewinners - about £300 worth of stories. More varied than my first book - in particular there are more micro-fictions.
  • A prose book of pieces less than 1000 words long - never sent out. A dozen or so of the pieces have already been published, earning about £80.

I can pursue the publication of some of these in parallel. However, none of them is marketing gold, and competition from creative writing graduates and poets overseas grows more intense. The book need to be headlined by some more successful pieces. My plan in 2013 was to get some prose competition successes to strengthen the credentials of the 2nd story book, while placing poems in a rather higher league of magazines than I'd previously appeared in. No success. I'm trying the same scheme this year, with more emphasis on short prose. I've had some success, but not enough yet. So I'll wait.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Artifice and UK writers

No, truly; for the truest poetry is the most
feigning; and lovers are given to poetry, and what
they swear in poetry may be said as lovers they do feign.

Do you wish then that the gods had made me poetical?

This, from "As You Like It", exploits a pun - "feign" means "fake" and "fain" means "desire". Julian Barnes when he quoted the passage added "Does he mean that feigning is the only way to a higher truth? That all poetry is made of lies? That true poetry comes from a lover’s deepest desires? That love poetry is deceitful, and provides a way to satisfy one’s desires under a pretence of love?".

The popularity of Artifice and Mannerism goes through phases. "Give a man a mask and he will reveal himself" said Oscar Wilde, but in general, readers like their prose to be free of artifice. At book clubs where novels are discussed, the behaviour of the characters ("why did he fall for her?") and the book's main issues ("should she have had that abortion?") tend to dominate the discussion over issues of technique and word choice. When authors like Julian Barnes, Toby Litt, Matthew Francis and Ali Smith (in "Artful") slip into essay mode, use wordplay or exploit Oulipo techniques, the effects may be described as clever, but they're less often considered to be of literary value. Even if they're not described as "showing off" the effects are "distracting". Sincerity and restraint are admired both in displays of emotion and of language.

Not quite as bad as being called "clever" is being described as "a stylist". Again, content is seen as being affected by (or obscured by) the mode of expression, which is considered to be of less literary value than the content (though at least style, unlike form, is unlikely to have a negative value).

I think my prose is vulnerable to both types of criticism - I write Formalist Prose, and passages of mine like the following depend on style and symbolism at least as much as on character

  • My parents’ loft is full of broken pieces of my childhood. There’s a suitcase of Rupert Annuals with sellotaped spines. The annuals included origami instructions — a historic breakthrough for the British Origami Society. When there was a bird in a story, they had instructions to make a bird with flapping wings, as if the bird could escape from the printed page.
  • When mum used to drive me home from swimming practice I sometimes closed my eyes, guessing from the turns and braking where we were. Often, as we turned into our drive, I'd convinced myself we were somewhere else

The norms of poetry are different, though even there some types of artifice are frowned upon - acrostics and foregrounded rhyme are playing with words, but unobtrusive syllabics are ok. In his recent Twenty-First Century Modernism blogpost Gareth Prior writes "A caricature of the current “conventional wisdom” would trace a line of descent from Edward Thomas down through Larkin to the contemporary lyric “I”, bypassing poets like Bunting, MacDiarmid, David Jones and Lynette Roberts. . He goes on to suggest that "Poems are allowed to be experimental in an easy-to-grasp tricksy way that makes us feel smug for “getting” them, but genuine difficulty is seen as suspect and/or elitist", and that the UK "seem to have it worse than the rest of the Anglophone world". He's writing more about difficulty than gaudy artifice, but for readers who want the language to be as clear as possible to reveal the true meaning of the content, anything that draws attention to language isn't welcomed.

Perhaps the English reputation for plain speaking intellectualism is deep-seated, perhaps US writers have more freedom. Helen Vendler wrote that Jorie Graham "is willing to indulge in extreme Mannerism in order to reproduce, in what she believes to be an accurate way, the shimmer of body-mind as it attends to nature".

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Poetry Prize culture

At least 3 articles have appeared this year about the Poetry Prize culture. They're all good reads.

Fiona Moore's Poetry prizes: the elephant on stage blogpost does the stats, looking at the "last ten years of shortlists, from 2004 to 2013, for both the TS Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize for Best Collection". Follow-ups to that post present stats for some smaller competitions, and mention the Poetry Book Society choices.

Joey Connolly's The Glittering Prizes (The Poetry Review, Summer 2014) considers some explanations of those stats

  • the biggest publishers publish the best books
  • judges have connections with those publishers, and with the poets (who they may have taught)
  • the prizes aren't intended to pick the best poetry but to catch the eye of the public
  • committees go for safe choices

In isolation each of these factors might be natural enough, and compensated for, but in combination their effects accumulate. He suggests that "more transparency would be a start". In the States they've already taken steps in that direction.

Jon Stone's Five Fixes For Contemporary British Poetry Culture #1: Prize Culture suggests that we could "Acknowledge prize culture for what it is and what it does, and make it do its job better". He also calls for more openness.

Sending the collections over to the States for someone over there to judge might reduce some bias. Or perhaps the UK could try what Italy's RAI did, and give literature the "X Factor" treatment -

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Psychology and literature

I think psychology should be part of any creative writing curriculum. I read psychology books to find out more about the processes of reading and comprehension, to help me understand how rhyme works, how readers construct characters, etc. I also read them to find out why people write, what influences the way they write, and what the health consequences are.

Below are links to some psychology articles I've written (I think they're some of my better articles) and responses to some psychology books I've read.



Thursday, 19 June 2014

Poetry and ordinary people

The term "ordinary people" has come up in Paxman-inspired poetry discussion lately. I confess that I don't meet many ordinary people. Over 50% of Cambridge people have at least a degree (the 3rd highest percentage in the country), so it's not an ordinary place. The local paper sometimes has a poem on the letters page. Here's part of "Pylons" from the latest issue we have

When the weather is clear, no mist or rain
I can see pylons stomping across the plain
Arms out stretched they stride the land
Or with hands on hips in cornfields stand,


They step over motorways with ease
And straddle roads and lanes where ere they please

I don't know how typical this is of the newspaper's poetry, but I imagine the editors know what goes down well. It's interesting to see how the formal features are dealt with. The rhyme is tight, the rhythm less so - there are 4 beats a line with a variable number of unstressed syllables. There seems little pressure to regularise the rhythm except for the use of "ere" (I presume "e'er" was intended).

The language has rather a "retro" feel - inversions aren't avoided, and compression isn't a priority.

Using pylons in this way as subject matter (rather than writing "Pylon poetry") is tempting - I've done it (though with much less anthropomorphising), and so, I imagine, have many other people. Often the pylons hold skipping ropes. Here they're mostly on the move. The ending's not so different to one of mine in sentiment.

Strung together for ever more until they reach some distant shore

I imagine that ordinary people read little contemporary poetry written by "poets". In a way, poems like "Pythons" take advantage of its readers' ordinariness. For that reason (and others) I'd feel rather awkward writing such poetry; exploitative. I wouldn't be writing for my peers.

And yet, I think I do sometimes write for non-poetry readers. Whether they'd be called ordinary is another matter. I have in mind people who have to read or write prose carefully, people prepared to challenge and question. But they won't know about the aims of some modern movements - Flarf, LangPo, etc - and they won't have much patience re Oulipo, minimalism, or anything that looks too much like the literary prose they usually read. So the poetry needs to allude to familiar material, and the aesthetics need to be familiar. Alternatively (and I've tried this too) it can be explained.

I went with my wife to see Luke Wright. His allusions to events and TV programs in his childhood were beyond her. He, John Cooper Clarke, rap artists, Wendy Cope, Pam Ayres and Roger McGough are amongst those who at least sometimes write poetry that ordinary people will pay attention to, though not the same "ordinary people" in each case. And John Cooper Clarke fans probably won't go for "Pylons".

Wednesday, 18 June 2014


I stayed for 24 hours in Newcastle - my first visit to the area. I didn't know whether to treat it as a photography holiday or a writer's retreat. I ended up reading and being a tourist. I found this spiral poem on the pavement close to where we parked my car - outside Newcastle University's library, I think.

I'd planned to photograph night-life, but after an evening meal at a world all-you-can-eat buffet I fell asleep before 10pm. Next day I had a buffet breakfast then dashed to the train station where groups of smartly-dressed people were waiting to catch an early train South - a palace garden party? The races?

I used the Metro and trains to see Sunderland, the Stadium of Light, Durham (where there was a 4-floor Oxfam bookshop with many poetry books and magazines) and the coast. Near Tynemouth there was this abandoned swimming pool.

Later, back in Newcastle I found a "Books for Amnesty" shop, then walked over the Tyne Bridge (roof gardens and kittiwakes beneath me, a note about the Samaritans half way along) to Gateshead (where Defoe spent a while), watched the Millennium bridge rise, went up the Baltic tower, and looked for Morden Tower (which has a literary history). Beside the walls were the backs of Chinatown restaurants and their ventilated smells.

The football stadium and the bridges can be seen from many parts of the city. Also quite a common sight were groups of party-goers (all-male or all-female) in good voice. Bouncers have a full-time job.

I wasn't in the mood for writing, but I can take photos in any mood. They'll come in useful for writing eventually. I finished a poetry magazine ("The Dark Horse") and read most of an Italian novel ("Se chiedi al vento di restare"), returning home just in time for the England vs Italy game.