Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Printed magazines with poetry and fiction

"The Interpreter's House still prints the odd story. So does "Tears in the Fence". And of course there's "London Magazine", "Stand", "Lighthouse" and "Under the Radar". I sometimes wonder how popular the poetry and fiction mix is. Will fiction writers subscribe to a magazine that only has a story or two per issue, if that? The fewer stories published in such magazines, the less likely it is that stories will be submitted. A few issues ago, "The Next Review" justified the lack of fiction on the grounds of submission quality, and the current (Spring/Summer 2015) issue of "New Walk" contains no fiction this time. From the editors' viewpoint it must be tempting to print poems rather than stories - contributors are likely to turn into subscribers if they aren't so already, and several poets' work can be squeezed into the space a story displaces.

My impression is that story-writers are less likely to appreciate poetry than poets appreciate stories. Consequently, story-writers are less likely to subscribe to mixed magazines. And more poets turn to story-writing than vice versa. Flash fiction (and especially microfiction) can bridge the divide. Interestingly, "The Next Review" sets a minimum fiction word-limit of 1500, blocking that route, whereas some other magazines don't label the texts published, leaving readers to classify short texts as either Flash, prose-poems or poems if they wish. But that flexibility risks putting side by side texts whose style differs only in their use of line-breaks and white-space, inviting comparisons that may be uncomfortable, particularly when the white-space is extravagant.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

The state of Poetry Reviewing

In The Poet Tasters Ben Etherington studies a year of poetry reviews in Australia, going beyond the raw stats (though he quotes those too) by reading all 247 of the eligible reviews from 2013. I imagine many of his conclusions would apply to the UK situation. He points out that poetry reviewers (unlike film and novel reviewers) are thought of as practitioners writing criticism on the side (they are, but they should be respected as reviewers). He noted a uniformity of structure in the reviews he read -

More often than not, reviews follow this formula:
1. Introduce the volume, the poet and their previous publications.
2. Describe the poet’s overall aesthetic with reference to European and / or North American antecedents.
3. Quote approvingly from two or three choice poems with some technical commentary.
4. Express reservations about one or two poems.
5. Affirm, nevertheless, the worthiness of the volume as a whole.

He also notes that it's typical to "criticise some unnamed poets in opposition to those of whom you approve".

Readers expect certain things (not least a judgement) from reviews but I don't think that excuses formulaic writing. A template I often see is a review that begins with an observation about poetry, then shows how it relates to the book in question. My pile of magazines-to-read has examples. Here are 3 starts -

  • When you are young, and full of verse, there seem so many subjects for poems: the self, the other, the leaf on the pavement, the scent of the mock orange: all present themselves as thrilling and new. And when you are old, for many poets, the world fills again with the urgency of imminent loss, and you enter another phase of intense creativity. But in between there is middle age: the era of responsibility, and consistency, and matrimony, and parenting, and imminent not much - Kate Clancy, The Poetry Review, V103:4, p.104
  • In 2004, Dr James Kaufman of California State University published his study into the varying lifespans of writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Along with statistical evidence suggesting that the business of poetry contrived to bump off poets at an average age of sixty-two (four years earlier than novelists), Kaufman concluded that "Poets produce twice as much of their lifetime output in their twenties as novelists do". While novelists of the late modern period were shown to improve through a good long stewing, poets of the same era tended to flash fry, then overcook themselves - Jack Underwood, The Poetry Review, V103:4, p.125
  • Do writers describe places, or create them in their work? Perhaps that question should be can writers describe real places, or must they write them into existence? - Matt Ward, New Walk 10

I don't mind this template unless it's over-used in an issue. I do dislike: opinions that could be backed up by stats but aren't; pseudo-scientific critical vocabulary; and descriptions that are so poetic that I don't know what the reviewer means.

Etherington points out that "No one believes that most Australian poetry volumes are a couple of edits or a tempered excess away from being a perfect version of themselves, but this is what, en masse, the reviews tell us. ... The obvious and probably accurate conclusion is that few poets writing about fellow poets in a smallish scene will want to offend, and fewer will want to harm their own careers and networks". I suspect that the UK situation is similar. I try to moderate my comments so that I rate as average the books halfway down my ordered list! This, I realise, is rarely done in poetry (films much more often get 1 star out of 5).

He notes also that "More remarkable is the general lack of references to other Australian poets, both past and present". I don't notice this anti-local tendency as much here, though younger poets cite US poets as influences and yardsticks more often than they used to.

Producing a UK version of Etherington's article would take a while. Maybe some Masters student might try it. Maybe they already have.

p.s. Etherington praises a review by Bonny Cassidy.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Science and poetry again

Several poets are drawn to using science in their poems. In England the poetry of Prynne, Dorothy Lehane, etc sometimes includes a liberal sprinkling of science vocabulary. More mainstream are Heidi Williamson and Lavinia Greenlaw who use science or (more often) scientists as subject matter.

Science is the new Exotic to some (mysterious trinkets from another land), to others it's the new Theology - deep truths masked by code. With its cornucopia of new ("X-ray") and re-used ("charm") vocabulary it's tempting to raid its word kitty. If the result sounds clever, the reader might think the poet's clever too. Few readers are going to be in a position to challenge from a scientific position, and in any case, what would it prove? A poem's not a thesis. However, I suspect that if poets appropriated the vocabulary of Art in similarly cavalier fashion, they wouldn't get away with it.

The risk with using science terms is that the poem is going to come over differently depending on how much science the reader knows. This risk applies to many types of allusions of course, but in the science case the reading communities are easier to define, and the material may more easily become out-dated.

Using science words is easy. Less frequently, poets deal with science (and maths) concepts. We are used to philosophical or religious poetry, poetry that presents an argument. Quantum theory and Relativity are common themes for those wanting to express scientific ideas poetically.

"Gathering Evidence" by Caoilinn Hughes is the latest addition to maths/science poetry that I've read. Like Greenlaw, Hughes has written about Marie Curie, but she also uses technical terms in the way that Lehane sometimes does. Here's an example - "If he could secure/ a hailstone in a wheelbarrow, with solid algebra, he could square a circle.// To square a circle! He might as well have measured the Garden/ of Eden if he could master this binomial expansion". Maybe it's this kind of writing that encouraged a reviewer to write - Hughes uses scientific language with such precision that I wondered if she had an adviser on hand (booksellers New Zealand)

On the back of Williamson's book it says that her "fascination with science leads her to explore less usual territories for poetry, including mathematics, chemistry, and computer programming, as well as space travel, electricity, and evolution". I think that more poets who write about science go into it nowadays with their eyes more pragmatically open than that -

  • "The main difficulty with 'Night Photograph' has been the “poetry about science” tag. I grew up in a family of scientists and have long been fascinated by time and space, so this is a natural source of metaphor for me. I only became conscious of how much science there is in the book when it was pointed out. Since then, I have resisted science like hell. It is mostly too seductive, incomprehensible and exciting to be anything other than borrowed" - Lavinia Greenlaw, interview in Thumbscrew (1997)
  • "I married an astronomer! ... I think initially I was trying to write metaphors for the science, based on human experience but that wasn’t working out so well, the science was present, but the poetry seemed dry. I didn’t think I was achieving anything more than representing the original idea, theory, or astrophotography I was looking at, or the paper I was researching. So I tried to do more than represent the original by using the science as a launch pad but moving away from it, by keeping a dialogue with human concerns at the same time" - Dorothy Lehane, interview in Annex (2013)

Andrew Duncan reviewing Lehane's "Ephemeris" in Litter magazine writes that "Lehane’s project has to do with combining poetry and science. The two are intertwined in a very specific way here: objective knowledge separates projections of feelings and wishes from the information provided by the eyes, but here the idea is to interfuse them. Her poems are intensely personal and highly coded: everything profound loves a mask".

He goes on to suggest that "The poetry-science project is likely to draw a great deal of attention in the next twenty years or so. It is quite hard to define what the purpose is; I think the core is the sense of opportunity, that there is a wilderness here, and that if you buy creative people time they will wander around that wilderness and bring back things never before seen. Part of the impetus is the wish of museum staff to make their holdings presented anew in visible or audible form."

I think he's right in suggesting that there may be some mutually beneficial schemes available. I've written about Poetry about Science in the UK before, so I won't repeat the arguments here, other than to point out the risk that a mutually beneficial scheme can sometimes turn into uncritical mutual back-scratching.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Love, Love, Love

Time for a blast of egoism (aka marketing). I may as well take advantage of my surname - other people do. I was never into the Beatles, but they got a few things right. Here's some graffiti from Abbey Road.

The reason I write so much down (and take photos) is that my memory's poor. I even need to ask others about my childhood. That deficiency has advantages too - I tend to archive things, ephemera especially. I've a weakness for nostalgia and pottering in lofts.

See my illustrated CV for a potted history of places and events. I've not entirely given up the interests I had when I was younger, they've all been useful in their way, though my basketball aspirations faded fast (I'm 5' 8"). My career development, like that of many people, wasn't carefully planned. I tried various cities out, and rather expected to be self-employed in some way, or to do a 9 to 5 job just for the money.

I did physics and maths at university - the "Church–Turing thesis" type of maths in the end - but I don't think that Maths is really my subject. Having done Maths, Applied Maths and Physics at A level, the options were limited.

Computers have figured in several ways over the years, both in work (self-employed and otherwise) and play. I did a brief Fortran course while doing Maths, then after my degree played about at home. Before doing a Masters I wrote a cassette-based game. Then I found gainful employment. We've always had a programmable domestic computer. BASIC was the first language I had any success with. Search for "Tim Love Computing" and you'll soon end up in the UK's History of Computing Museum.

Writing's another hobby.

  • "truly excellent website", Michael Donaghy
  • "I admire the intelligence, seriousness and exhaustive reading I find here", Prof George Szirtes, Aug 2010
  • "I commend TL's website to you as an excellent resource", Prof Stephen Payne, Nov 2010
  • "Tim Love is a very clever chap", Jane Holland, 2010
  • "Just a quick message to say how much I enjoyed your Happenstance chapbook. It was unexpected in the best way. The boldness and intelligence of the poems reminded me of twentieth century German poetry. It's a remarkable collection, and I hope it thrives", Alison Brackenbury, Dec 2010

I've lived in Cambridge since 1987, always working in the same place, but shifting emphasis every so often. I began working with computers before the web was invented, then being webmaster became part of my role. I don't do much system management nowadays. I've taught future astronauts and gold medalists though.

When I was little, the only spaghetti I knew about came in cans. I preferred baked beans. I visited Italy first when I InterRailed in about 1980. I've been there many times since (by car, train, and plane). My inlaws live north of Milan, but we've visited most areas, Sicily being the main omission. I've put online some write-ups of Italian books that I've read. Alas, my Italian's not good enough for the write-ups to be in Italian.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Some prose recommendations

Glancing back through some of my write-ups I noticed some authors and works I was particularly struck by, but haven't yet suggested to people. So here goes -

  • Short story writers - Padrika Tarrant, Sarah Hall, Jai Clare, Anthony Doerr
  • Flash/Short stories/Novellas -
    • "Everything in this country must" (Colum McCann)
    • "Story of your life" (Ted Chiang)
    • "What I've seen" (Dragan Todorovic)
    • "The Goldfish" (David Means)
    • "All downhill from here" (Guy Ware)
    • "Remaking the moon" (David Gaffney)
  • Novels - "So many ways to begin" (Jon McGregor)

Monday, 30 March 2015

The language of menus (and poetry reviews)

  • "a subtle hint of truffle"
    Why "subtle" rather than "slight" or simply "weak"? The same trick is used in poetry reviews, especially with comic verse written by famous, non-comic poets. "weak" implies a lack (in quality or quantity) of ingredients. "subtle" is more to do with perception than final significance. It describes something that's hard to initially discern, perhaps because there's little worth discerning (i.e. the effect is weak), but it may describe something that though well masked has a strong effect once it's detected (e.g. a sigh that means so much). You need to be an astute observer/taster to notice something subtle - the recipient is being flattered by the writer.
  • "Rutland beef in a white sauce"
    Why not "beef in white sauce"? Detail and particularity are valued in poems. In poetry it won't do to give someone a flower, or see a bird pull at a worm. Use African pansies, and magpies. There might not be significance in the choice of detail - in this menu example the extra "a" adds no information, and there's no reason why Rutland beef should be prized. What matters is the evident attention to detail - a reason for the poetry reader to be optimistic.
  • "with a smooth articulation of aftertastes"
    Beware when a word representing an admired quality in one context is used in quite another. Wine in particular needs to import terms, given the limited range of raw materials at its disposal. As soon as more than one factor is involved in a meal or poem, terms can be used from other domains (often engineering) to indicate successful integration - cogs meshing, etc.
  • "clean-flavoured, relaxed, precise cooking"
    Precision is valued in many disciplines. Poetry precision is harder to define and measure than precision of musical performance or realistic art (look no further than the tolerance granted to line-breaks), and yet poetry reviewers, even good ones, praise exactness without explaining the term. For example, Judy Brown in "Poetry Review V103:4 (Winter 2013)" mentions how the reviewed poems have "engineering exactness", and "how precisely they achieve their friable effects".

Thursday, 19 March 2015


Friends sometimes ask unpublished writers why they don't just self-publish nowadays. After all, an e-book's so easy to produce. Why involve a publisher?

One answer is that being associated with a publisher connects you to other writers. You can put on readings together. Another is that if you're lucky, the reputation of the publisher will enhance yours.

Sean O'Brien's review of Tony Williams' "The Midlands" isn't just great news for the poet, but for the publisher Nine Arches Press too.

My other publisher, HappenStance Press, is also active. Most recently, a video of Helena Nelson in conversation with Lindsay MacGregor has appeared in which Creative Writing students are given tips about getting published. Amongst my HappenStance stablemates are 3 generous bloggers who I always read - Matthew Stewart, Matt Merritt (who's also a Nine Arches Press poet) and Fiona Moore (Saboteur's "Best Reviewer 2014").

HappenStance has a subscription scheme so that those who haven't been published can still feel they belong.