Thursday, 27 May 2010

Recent UK poetry anthologies: tradition and the individual

I'm feeling more mainstream than I used to. Of course, I don't think I've changed, but as magazines come and go, and new editors and judges appear, the centre-of-gravity in UK poetry seems to have shifted and the traditional mainstream has less of a hold, a change signposted by a burst of anthologies with much overlap of poets selected. Can that overlap be considered the emergence of a new tradition?

Identity Parade (ed Roddy Lumsden, Bloodaxe)

384 pages. 85 poets, all of whom have either published first collections within the past 15 years or make their debut within the next year. Todd Swift wrote

  • Lumsden notes in his Introduction the interesting idea that this period's period style is "individualism" - and that this may be connected to the new digital mediascape, which has at once fragmented and multiplied options. This may be so, but reading the poets and poems in Identity Parade, one is not so much struck by lack of uniformity, as by certain moods, modes, tones, and rhythms that do reoccur. Far from being an entirely heterogeneous and strange period ... most of the poems selected are relatively coherent.
    Most tell stories, express emotions, are witty or engagingly imaginative, and use the forms and manner made famous by Heaney, Muldoon, Duffy, or Paterson - clearly the four presiding spirits.
  • What is odd is how this compression of talent ... manages to diminish even the larger figures in the midst of the pack, who feel a bit crushed in the crowd. ... Also missing are the show-stoppers - the lightning-strike poems - that mark a poet or generation as great.

No shining individuals then, according to Swift. Instead a new tradition's taking over.

Voice Recognition (ed Clare Pollard and James Byrne, Bloodaxe)

168 pages. 21 poets, none of whom yet published a first book of poems. David Kennedy wrote

  • the emphasis on 'voice' might tell us something about the poetry and there is a lot of work here that probably sounds great in a reading or on a podcast ... This also means that there is a lot of largely formless free verse that lacks any inevitability on the page. But what's most surprising in the context of a generation-defining anthology is the number of voices here that seem to lack confidence or to revel in an inability to communicate.
  • And, as we have seen, anthologies with a relatively small number of poets tend to reflect exhaustion, a coming conservatism, or a combination of both.
  • The poetry collected in Voice Recognition seems largely unaware of and unconcerned with what has dominated British mainstream poetry since about 1950: anxieties about class, region, gender and race ... The editors and their poets have removed one of poetry's principle claims for recognition: its ability to offer unique insights into the relationships between private and public and between self and nation that define us all.

Andy Croft writes

  • In many ways it is a fascinating selection ... But it is a pretty depressing read too. At best it's a collection of confessional poetry, filmic sensibilities and "a multiplicity of styles" - poetry for the Facebook generation. So there are lots of ampersands, lowercase titles and references to high art and trash-culture. But there is not a single rhyme in the book, not enough anger and hardly any laughs ... And if these poets share "a deep fascination with the world as it is today," you would hardly know it from this book

So, suspicions about "a coming conservatism", a lack of concern with society, and quality. Maybe too a yearning for form or rhyme.

Infinite Difference (ed Carrie Etter, Shearsman)

211 pages. 25 poets - women only. No age/publication limits but the writing's experimental. Steve Spense writes of a chosen Denise Riley poem that

  • This is a little like Prynne yet it's lighter and its questioning mode has a more breezy lyric touch, mixing abstraction with lyric imagery. It's not as 'over-the-top' or quite as 'tongue-in-cheek' as John Ashbery can be yet neither is it as clotted or as full of resistance as John Wilkinson often is!

Spense's review (unlike the TLS's) is largely favorable and informed. He writes that

  • the sheer pleasure in reading Elizabeth Bletsoe's work comes from its mix of registers, its variety of diction and the exceptional way in which she fuses experience with learning and makes it all appear so easy and as natural as breathing. Her work is rich and highly-textured and although complex never obscure or unrewarding

Here's an extract of Elisabeth Bletsoe's work

Roddok, Robin (Erithacus rubecula)
Becoming secretive & depressed in the later months, before the vigorous reassertion of autumn territory. Stakes & ties. Paths of observance newly laid through contusions of aster, sedum & verbena bonariensis, helmeted with bees; offertories yielding a roman tessera, three pebbles from Chesil Bank & a tennis ball. A smell of burning moxa. Sulphur being ground with mercury to form vermilion; glazed with madder, sealed. Red as a releaser (your fat cherry lips), the impossible fury of it all. Oscillograph of the throat, that bob bob bobbing thing. Boundaries constructed from scribbles of sound. Marginals encompass the crossing at North Road, where fifteen burials "very shallow & without coffins" marked the putative site of Swithun's chapel.

I find it hard to judge how this selection fares regarding conformity though clearly it's not mainstream - even George Ttoouli in his anthology overview, Ineffable Compendia, writes that the poems "are mindblowingly unconventional in places".

Women's Work (eds Eva Salman and Amy Wack, Seren)

300 pages. 250 poets. Steve Spense writes

  • The material is mainly from a wide mainstream section ... This is a feast of a book which includes the big names such as Sylvia Plath, Stevie Smith and Emily Dickinson while tipping its hat towards the more experimental end of the 20th century - Lyn Hejinian and Lorine Neidecker

This aims to be more representative than the other selections here, chronicling a tradition rather than forging one

Rialto Spring 2010 (ed Michael Mackmin)

This issue has a section by 20 under-35s (Keston Sutherland, James Byrne (ed of "Voice recognition"), etc) chosen by Nathan Hamilton. He writes

  • there is this tendency ... to look for individual 'poets' on which to pin hopes of the 'next big thing'

Perhaps he's read Todd Swift's opinions. He thinks other recent anthologies have

  • vague points about vibrancy and optimism ... Most of these selections have paid a certain overstated lip service to the bouncy pluralist nature of the current poetic milieu ... But, rather crucially, this is generally without ever actually including much of anything that could reasonably be described as 'experimental', or even 'new' "poets who are actually more 'experimental' alongside examples of younger poets who might be deemed more representative of the accessibly 'mainstream'

So again, a plea for more variety, this time towards the experimental. Note how the word mainstream is not only in quotes but is wrapped in protective qualification. In the next issue there'll be more poets and an article. For now, here's a sample from a piece by Richard Parker

91. Object-pine
Derives | its | value
From all | its use | values.
But to | love is | against

Use val | ue, though | retains
Exchange. | A pine, | Baucis,
Stands next | to

And here's the start of a horse poem by Jonty Tiplady

Chose your own horse
So let them choose their own horses.
Last night I dreamt this colour etymology

of 'you'. Everything was 'clear' -
'you' came from 'Hugh', for example,

Smith's Knoll 46 (eds Joanna Cutts and Michael Laskey)

By chance 2 of the first 3 poems in this issue mention horses too. For comparison purposes I'll sample from them. The first is by Maitreyabandhu

    Take this day:
a horse standing by the fence
    of a small enclosure;
muddy eyes and coat

    Take the air around him,
barely moving. He promises
    to flick a hock-length tail,
but won't

and the second by Chris Beckett

Boast of a Fly-whisk
Tail without a horse! hair of the horse called
fierce flayer of wasps and fleas

I salute you, Gashay! relaxing on this cushy knee
   in sunny slug-warm garden.

It's perhaps more mainstream than Rialto (where Michael Laskey has a poem in the maybe-not-under-35s section). It ends with a note entitled "Following the Poem" by Kate Bingham (of "Identity Parade"), who mentions that Roddy Lumsden thinks that her generation 'does seem more harmonious' adding

  • does this mean that the poems we write, though open-minded and sensitive at all times to the worlds they arise from, are less passionately convincing?

and wondering whether

  • it's time to sign up to a new aesthetic principle. One that not everyone will like, that gives poets more of a say in what their poems say

rather than waiting to follow the poem wherever it goes. Again, I detect a wish for more individuality. Luke Kennard (who's in "Identity Parade" and the Rialto issue) in a Review of Kate Bingham writes

  • if there is any such thing as a poetic mainstream, "Quicksand Beach" fits it like a favourite shoe - personal, anecdotal, accessible
  • There is a voice and a personality here - and it is the voice and personality of a person rather than a voice a person thinks sounds like a poet. ... If there is something wrong with many poets of the 'My dog died' school, it is exactly the same thing that is wrong with many poets of the 'Subversion of language' school: it is their mimsy affectation of the poetic, their obsession with their role as A Poet.

And finally ...

Kennard and Bingham seem to share concerns about the individual and tradition whereas Kennedy and Croft see an issue with the individual and society. Nearly all of the poets featured in Rialto teach or study literature (perhaps the first UK generation for which that has been possible). This is a consequence of the way the poems were collected but I suspect most of the anthologised poets are in groups too, which might make them tend to coalesce with peers at the expense of contacting the outside world. Workshops are good at raising the general standard and smoothing off rough edges.

What about the rest of us, the wrinklies and muggles? I recently read "Beneath the Apple Bough" by Isabella Strachan. In her foreword she writes that she's been in magazines for 30 years and won the Wells competition. At the end of the book in a note entitled "The Poetry Scene Today" she mentions the difficulty she'd have being accepted by publishers like Shoestring or Tall Lighthouse and writes that "After 15 years of intensive writing" she has "decided to bow out of the poetry world". Sometimes I feel like that too. From the extracts I've seen, I think I'd find "Infinite Difference" the hardest collection. I found Rialto's selection the most interesting and look forward to seeing how Nathan Hamilton concludes.

Friday, 21 May 2010

A list of Flash outlets

The magazines below welcome Flash. Magazines have a more tolerant attitude nowadays, so even if a magazine doesn't explicitly welcome Flash, submission might be worthwhile even if it's a poetry magazine.

MagazineWord limitGuidelinesNotes
Boston Literary Magazine=50, =100, 250online"Strong characters"
Paragraph Planet=75online
Foundling Review100-2000onlinePieces with a "strong emotional core"
dogzplot200onlineFlash videos accepted
six little things250onlineThemed
Literary Bohemian300, 1200onlineTravel-inspired
Flash360onlineA5 booklet
Quick fiction500onlinePaper
Vestal review500onlineNot Jun, Jul, Dec, Jan. Paper. Pays
Flash fiction online500-1000onlinePays $50
Everyday fiction1000onlinePays $3
Hobart1000onlineWWW and paper versions. Pays
Eclectic Flash1000online
Word Riot1000online"Edgy... experimental"
Flashquake1000onlineNot Feb, May, Aug, or Nov. Pays
Smokelong quarterly1000online
The Pedestal Magazine1000onlineHas reading periods. Pays
Night Train1500online
20x201500onlineLoosely themed. Rich graphics
ShadowtrainonlineA poetry magazine really

Monday, 17 May 2010

Attention, Agility and Poetic Effects

(This was inspired by Verse Palace's Experiments in Poetry)

General Theory

The idea of cognition being a process where an "executive function" determines how attention will be deployed isn't new. Here are two descriptions
  • "Bialystok (1990, 1994), in her classic discussion of cognitive development describes learning in terms of two cognitive processing components - analysis and control. Analysis changes the way knowledge is represented in the mind of the learner. Through the process of analysis, language knowledge changes from implicit knowledge organised at the level of meanings, to explicit knowledge organised at the level of formal or symbolic knowledge. Control involves a development in the learner's ability to selectively focus on relevant and appropriate information. Control, in this sense, means the process of allocating attention to specific representations of knowledge and the ability to move between representations (or particular aspects of these representations) in a manner which allows the fluent completion of the task" (condensed from Hanauer).
  • "Miller and Cohen draw explicitly upon an earlier theory of visual attention which conceptualises perception of visual scenes in terms of competition among multiple representations - such as colors, individuals, or objects. Selective visual attention acts to 'bias' this competition in favour of certain selected features or representations. ... According to Miller and Cohen, this selective attention mechanism is in fact just a special case of cognitive control - one in which the biasing occurs in the sensory domain. ... Within their approach, thus, the term 'cognitive control' is applied to any situation where a biasing signal is used to promote task-appropriate responding, and control thus becomes a crucial component of a wide range of psychological constructs such as selective attention, error monitoring, decision-making, memory inhibition and response inhibition" (from Wikipedia)

Hanauer has applied this theory to literature. As proposed by Graves (1996), the study of expert and novice readers of literature is a useful methodology for investigating the workings of the literary system. Hanauer summarise the empirical studies as follows

  • Experts analyse the literary text on multiple levels and integrate this information into their interpretations; novices relate to the local level of the text.
  • Experts analyse the communicative context of the literary text and the function of various literary patterns within this context; novices follow the narrative and dialogue structure of the literary text.
  • Experts manipulate and focus on specific information in the text in order to produce literary interpretations; novices were very influenced by the local level of the text.
  • Experts can explicitly discuss the role of formal schematic and textual features in the construction of an interpretation; novices paraphrase the meaning of the text.

I'm going to look more closely at the "levels" aspect of these conclusions, incorporating the factor of speed.

Stratified Literary Features

A literary work has many features, some of which might be considered as "layers". For example, Roman Ingarden developed Aristotle's concept that a literary work of art has at least 4 layers, starting with sound, then sense. Perceived properties (like beauty, difficulty, etc) can slide from one level to another. In an experiment by Song and Schwarz where people were shown recipes in different fonts, a recipe in a font that's hard to read was thought to be harder to execute than the same recipe in an easy font. Similarly, speed of reading (controlled by layout) can affect the perceived speed of the narrated events, and a surprising layout can be synchronised with a narrative surprise. I suspect that experts are more aware of the transference of such characteristics. In the "recipe" experiment the effect disappeared if the experimenter apologised to the subject for the readability of the font. An expert reader might not have needed such an apology in order to compensate.

Upper layers can have emergent features absent from lower ones (emotions only exist at higher levels) or can have effects that contradict those of lower layers (a story full of jokes can be sad). Interpretation is not a straightforward progression from lowest to highest level. A higher level interpretation can provoke a re-interpretation of a lower level. Often the lower levels (the choice of font, color, etc) are soon ignored. Low-level features are more likely to "show through" palimpsestically in poetry than in prose, though many prose examples exists. Some examples:

  1. If in a hand-written letter one reads "this is written with my blood", the physical medium becomes significant again.
  2. When reading handwriting one might reinterpret letters after having failed to deduce a satisfactory meaning.
  3. "Janet likes John" is a simple enough sentence. The interpretation of "Janet likes John" is slightly different.
  4. "love's sore return" - The letters painlessly form into words that in turn combine to form a sentence. When appended by "(4)" and seen as a cryptic crossword clue however, words are broken down into letters, and the meaning of the apostrophe changes.
  5. "Flower: exploding star in retreat" - An imagist poem? No, another clue. An exploding star is a nova, which reversed spells the solution, which is "Avon" - something that flows and hence is a 'flower'. In this case we need to regress back to the "letters" level and re-create an alternative sound and meaning for 'flower'

In the table below I attempt to describe the effects of some layered poetic features on attention. The up/down directions mentioned below pertain to the hierarchy formed by letters, words/sound, localized meaning, and general meaning. The in/out direction is relative to the text. I also consider the narrowness of the attention.

MeterInDown to soundWide
RhymeInDown to soundMedium
AcrosticInDown to lettersMedium
Internal referenceInSame levelNarrow
Intertextual referenceOut (text)Same levelNarrow
NounsOut (World)Up out of languageMedium
Proper nounsOut (World)Up out of languageNarrow

I hope these entries are not far from your subjective impressions. Meter, for example, is a field effect, a wide dissipated awareness of sound emerging from below. End-rhyme has a more local affect. On the other hand if someone called James Lawson was reading a poem that said "James Lawson is a prat", attention would be narrowly focussed away from the poem and away from language. Wherever the attention is dragged, sensations like "difficulty" might be carried along too. Some points to note

  • The fewer "in" effects, the more transparent the text appears to be (the fewer layers it seems to have)
  • Something like a proper noun that can distract attention from the text can be anchored to the text by making it rhyme, etc.

Rather than use the analogy of layers, this situation might be described in terms of processes with feedback.


In this document I'll stick with the "layer" metaphor for the sake of argument (and because it helps with the "palimpsest" metaphor).

Layer confusion and compression

The layers are not always clearly distinguished. For example,

  • Cryptic crossword clues conflate the layers
  • Phrases like "love is a four letter world" make readers change depth
  • Finnegan's Wake exhibits layer instability, as do poems like 'What's in a Homophone' (Josephine Abbott, Staple 25) which begins
    How can I bare it?
    My idle,
    My bridle partner
    Left me last weak
    For a made.
    What a waist
    Of ours
    And ours.

Gérard Genette used the term 'metalepsis' for when boundaries between layers are crossed by characters or other textual elements. For example, in Coleman Dowell's novel "Island People" a low level framed story becomes the top level, taking over the narrative, creating a kind of Mobius band.

Sometimes, especially during reading, the concept of layers is ignored; layers are merged together. This is also done in Cartography, in painting (perspective), and in Photoshop (to save storage space). It's often done to "fix" the interpretation from a particular viewpoint. The disadvantage is that the process is irreversable and makes alternative interpretations difficult. Making the reader do this might be the intent of the author, lulling the reader into a false sense of security.


Within a layer each new element can suggest meanings or eliminate possibilities (for example, consider the effect of each new fact in a whodunit). There can be an association with other phrases in the same layer or with elements in other layers. E.g.

  • 2 ambiguous phrases taken together can produces an unambiguous result.
  • A line-break (a lower layer feature) can change the interpretation of a phrase.

Reading often doesn't proceed linearly through the text. Even in prose there's typically 10% of saccades (eye-movements) backwards. In poetry this percentage is likely to be higher. In particular ambiguity and confusion will provoke backtracking or regression to lower layers. The amount of backtracking needed will influence the reading strategy. Options include

  • serial processing (if readers pick the wrong alternative they backtrack to the last fork - usually on the same layer)
  • parallel processing (keeping all options open - multi-tasking)
  • minimal commitment (choosing an option but accepting that the chosen option is provisional - using peripheral vision)

Chapter-ends and poetic line-breaks tend to force a decision/resolution. The sentence above in the 'layer confusion' section works better with line-breaks

   love is
   a four letter

Rather than just using the emergent meaning one can have a richer reading experience by retaining the lower-level meaning too, leaving that up/down dimension open for traversal. End-rhymes force an awareness of the lower level of sound, though it's only one of many poetic effects that do this. In general, the path through the text is less linear for the poetry reader than for the prose reader. Poetry readers are more likely to bob between layers and move backwards and forwards in the text - they're more agile, and they might read prose in a similarly agile way.

Mental Agility

When it's said that someone lacks mental agility, what is meant? Clearly it's something to do with speed (which hasn't yet been mentioned) as well as movement. I think the movements alluded to fall into 3 main types

  • Moving forwards and backwards in the text
  • Changing between 2 modes of attention (for example, from visual effects to plot-following, or seeing an issue from others' viewpoints)
  • Zooming in/out while staying in the same mode.

Control of this movement is the role of what's often called the "central executive function". A related notion to this movement is multi-tasking (or dual tasking). There's quite a lot of research about this so although it's not strictly relevant, it's worth considering the material because it too involves task-switching. There are situations where we perform multi-tasking - when a task is automated (e.g. driving), or when the tasks can be clumped into a fewer activities (a pianist doesn't have to worry about each finger or hand in isolation) but as Earl Miller has shown, we really only focus on one or two items at a time. Multitasking is essentially delegation or fast task-switching. Autistic people tend to lack this ability. It's harder when the tasks are similar, or use the same part of the brain; easier when the tasks are easily interruptable.

Expert readers have fewer difficulties

  • Expert readers are likely to use more parts of their brain because they look for more features
  • Expert readers have more opportunies to clump, putting less load on working memory.

Plus points

This mixture of tightening and loosening the reader's attention, of turning their attention inward, upward, then outward, of rocking them backwards and forwards through rhyme, can be choreographed by the poet, and presents a challenge to readers with inflexible attention strategies, resulting in simplifications and tunnel vision. In some poems inflexibility isn't important because there's a uniformity of effect. For example

  • With Dada "sound poetry" attention is always "down to sound"
  • A list poem (of regions used in BBC weather forecasts, for example) predominantly uses one effect
  • Confessional poetry has a narrow focus

During reading, some people resist the movement between layers. They become stuck in a layer, trying to read Finnegan's Wake as if it were a poorly spelt straight story. They lose the possibility of seeing how the 2 movements (forwards and backwards; up and down) interact. It's as if an archaeologist ignored the depth at which artifacts were found. For this reason (and because they notice peripheral clues) agile readers might be less prone to whodunnit punchlines.

At other times (e.g when reading an ironic text), not only is flexibility required but speed is too. Using a cinema analogy, what's required is not only a good editor to combine the viewpoints afterwards, but a good director too, otherwise important data may not be collected in the first place. An effective director might perform an initial scan through the modes to see if anything stands out (much as one might scan the horizon or flick through TV channels, or size up a poem) - a shallow, wide search. In a live TV show a director needs to be an editor too. They may have a bank of screens showing the output from various cameras, and like a reader will choose which to prioritise whilst retaining a periperal awareness of happenings on other screens. This is analogous to the situation a poetry listener is in - speed of control and task-switching become important. Once interesting features are identified, attention might be centred on those modes that recognise the features. To be effective, people require

  • quick processing (so the director can decide quickly where to focus attention next)
  • sufficient working memory storage so that a task can be continued from where it was left off when task-switching.

With a good director, the person can still emulate someone without agility (they can narrowly focus on a single task), but they can also rapidly juxtapose 2 viewpoints (hence produce comedy, insight, dramatic irony, etc) producing responses that are hard for non-agile readers to appreciate (like not getting a joke)

Minus Points

Uncontrolled flitting can be a problem. It can look like

  • inappropriate detachment - withdrawal; lack of response
  • multiple personality
  • confusion
  • attention deficiency
  • shallowness
  • dilution of the poem's impact by considering too many types of features.

By breaking "agility" down, problems and diagnoses can be more accurately diagnosed. A fast director (an imprecise one especially) can increase the workload for the "editor" stage. Continuing the film analogy

  • If a good director has few cameras they'll be good at a few tasks, but they'll have blindspots
  • If a good director has bad cameras they'll not miss the obvious (common sense rather than insight)
  • If a bad director has good cameras someone else can use their work. it might be saved by a good editor

What can be taught?

Both speed of task-switching and range of tasks can be increased by training. Readers can practise switching, superimposition, etc against the clock, and they can become more sensitive to issues like Form, Implied Addressee, etc.

According to Hanauer both implicit (theory) and explicit (examples) teaching methods should be used. The former allows the development of individual literary patterns and the latter widens the options of types of literary pattern that can be considered.

An Example

               Going Down
   Cycles cluck past, two boys walk with each girl,
   And upstairs James, not Jim, strums his sitar,
   Making words tadpole in your desklamp's pool,
   Breaking the concentration of the hour.

Rather than analysing a single factor in any depth, an expert reader will briefly consider layout, sound, the title and the first few lines of a poem to see which tools might be most appropriate for the task and genre. This pieces look like a sonnet, so the reader's attention might be attracted towards sound - particularly line-endings. Later there are enough references for the reader to realise the poems about Oxbridge life. Once they've finished a first reading, the title might be revisited ("Going Down" means leaving University). But the title's also a clue that the poem's an acrostic, a realisation that leads the reader to re-visit the lower levels. Readers need to go backwards and forwards as well as up and down. They can't afford to forget about a layer once it's been interpreted.

Schematically (and somewhat fancifully) here's a trajectory through the poem. The reader begins at the title (1) and perhaps guesses a theme, then does a low-level scan of the whole piece (2 to 3) then returns to a fairly high level (4) to read the piece, their attention draw back and down to the sounds of previous end-rhymes. At the end (5) there's another dip into lower levels (6) to read the initial letters of the lines, then finally (7) a high-level conclusion. A similar graph of a prose reader's journey would be a near-horizontal line.


  • Bialystok, E. (1990), "Communication Strategies: A Psychological Analysis of Second-Language Use". Oxford: Basil Blackwell Inc.
  • Bialystok, E. (1994), "Analysis and control in the development of second language proficiency". Studies in Second Language Acquisition 23, 157-68.
  • Graves, B. (1996). "The study of literary expertise as a research strategy". Poetics 23, 385-403.
  • Hanauer, D. (1999), "Attention and Literary Education: A Model of Literary Knowledge Development". Language Awareness, 8 (1), 15-29. (online)
  • Miller, E.K. and Cohen, J.D. (2001), "An integrative theory of prefrontal cortex function". Annual Review of Neuroscience 24, 167-202.
  • Song, H. and Schwarz, N. (2010), "If it's easy to read, it's easy to do, pretty, good, and true", The Psychologist, V23, February 2010

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

An Interview with Helena Nelson

Helena Nelson is the founder of HappenStance Press, (shortlisted for the Michael Marks pamphlet publisher award in 2009 and 2010). In August 2005 she launched a chapbook review (Sphinx) whose last paper issue appeared earlier this year. The magazine contained features about poetry publishing and interviews with small-press editors. It's time to turn the tables

You teach, write poetry, prose and reviews as well as run a press. Which of these activities most interfere with others? Do any have beneficial side-effects?
I teach in a further education college. It isn’t very academic, though it does involve teaching some literature. Most of the students I work with dislike poetry. That’s beneficial to me because it keeps the ‘arty’ stuff in perspective. Working in college also pays the bills which is more than just beneficial – it’s essential. I love writing, but I can’t write poems all the time (or even very often). In my case, poems won’t arrive to order (or commission). But at least I can choose to do prose and reviews, both of which give me aesthetic pleasure. I like syntax. I like sentences. I like manipulating words. And the reviews keep my critical faculties sharp – or at least I hope they do – and keep me in tune with what’s going on in contemporary poetry. I’ve spent most of my life wondering what on earth this poetry stuff is really about – why I write it and what it is that I myself and other poets are doing. Critical writing is another way of pursuing that investigation.

Do you still write fiction? Do you feel you've sacrificed your writing to run HappenStance?
I used to write romantic stories for women’s magazines a long time ago. It was a fun and taught me a lot but even back then it used up all my creative juice. Later I did some literary short stories but they weren’t good enough. These days my brain doesn’t work in a short-story way, though I do like non-fiction, reflective writing. I haven’t sacrificed my writing to run HappenStance, although I have given it (I don’t think of it as a ‘sacrifice’) a great deal of time. Often I think it’s good for poets not to have much opportunity to write. It prevents much self-indulgent twaddle. If a poem is a strong one, it will make time for itself.

Is your family involved with HappenStance too?
My daughter Gillian does most of the images for the chapbook covers and she also helps at launches. She’s making the cake for the HappenStance fifth birthday party in June. My son used to review for Sphinx but he’s working in Geneva which is not exactly handy.

You've met or communicated with many small-press publishers. Which do you most envy, and why?
I don’t envy any of them but I admire nearly all of them to varying degrees.

You re-discover neglected poets as well as launch new ones. Which excites you the most?
It’s hard to say. I get excited about each publication I’m working on. However, there’s something magical about working on a dead poet. I don’t mean anything necrophiliac – more a sense of being connected with literary history and seeing connections and patterns. Perhaps even influencing the immortal memory a little bit.

Do you wait for new poets to contact you or do you search for them? If so, where?
No time to search for them. They arrive, either through submissions or recommendations or I meet them or hear them somewhere. Or a name I’ve been seeing in magazines for ages suddenly turns into a person.

What have you been most proud of in your publishing work so far?

  • I’m very proud of the Sphinx tripartite review scheme, as I call it. It is fascinating getting pamphlet publications reviewed (and also rated) by three different people. I’ve never seen anything like this anywhere else and I’d like to think that eventually people would sit up and take notice if a publication (not necessarily one of mine) got a high rating there.
  • After the first year or so, I started the HappenStance subscriber scheme. This was initially because I didn’t want to mailshot people who would put the paperwork straight in the bin. I hate the way flyers fall endlessly out of poetry magazines. For a small payment, my subscribers get a ‘free’ pamphlet, publicity material and merchandise, as well as an annual chapter of the ‘HappenStance Story’. It’s not just a way of pulling in money. It builds an informed readership. I ask people to send back comments on what they’ve read. Most do. Without readers, poets are redundant. Lots of my subscribers are poets of course. Many of them are people whose work I’ve turned down, but I hope they still feel like they belong to something that matters and to which they matter in return.

What role do the small-press poetry magazines perform nowadays? Are they becoming less important? Have you ever been tempted to edit one?
I think they reflect what’s going on at the grass roots of contemporary poetry reading and writing. The grass is teeming with interesting life. It’s full of enthusiasms and obsessions and imitations and cliques and jobbing manoevres and occasional inspirations. You see trends and patterns and sometimes attention-catching writers popping up. Magazines are art forms in themselves too - they say a lot about their editors or editorial boards. I’ve learned a lot from reading the small magazines, and that continues to be true. And yes, I have been tempted to edit one but it would take over my life.

What developments in the literary world do you consider most significant this decade. Are any beneficial?
The World Wide Web. It puts people in touch who would never normally make connections. It brings all the dynamic, changing versions of the English language together. It changes everything. It’s a grand equalizer. I love paper, but I love these connections too. I can’t see where it will go or how much difference it will make to what we call ‘literature’ but I can’t help but be excited by it.

How should public money be channeled into literature? How does Scotland differ from England?
Hell, Tim, I don’t know. I’ve never been a beneficiary of public money, except as a poet doing readings subsidised by the Scottish Book Trust. Sometimes I think all public money spent on the arts is endlessly recycled: I get paid for a poetry reading. I spend the money on either buying poetry or going to someone else’s reading or publishing the next pamphlet. And so on.

If HappenStance were given 50,000 pounds, how would you spend it - more books? more staff so you could do more writing? more publicity? e-books?
I can’t imagine being given that much money. I like the difficulties of managing within a small budget, doing the best I can with what I have available and cherishing modest aspirations. I’m not comfortable about the responsibility of huge sums unless you can first prove the business works, which in my case means covering its costs. I still haven’t got that right. But I think art thrives within constraints: in my own writing, I’m a bit of a formalist. If you happen to have that much money and half an idea to give it to me, however, ask me again. The most precious thing I have is time. £50,000 buys a lot of that.

Why do you do it?
Dedicated to the one I love. Poetry, its evasive, ornery self. And you meet some marvellous people.

Monday, 3 May 2010

A response to Don Paterson's "The Empty Image"

Don Paterson's "The Empty Image: a new model of the poetic trope", available from his Ars Poetica page has more in it than I can comment upon or understand, but I'll mention a few points.

  • I don't think he's saying much that's new, but he doesn't claim to. I think he's saying that word-meanings create provisional context which in turn modifies word-meanings (and modifies reading strategy). The modification might be more than just a tweak: ground might become tenor, details might become symbolic, and v.v.. These feedback loops operate on several features, not just along the part-whole axis but also along transparent-opaque, sound-layout etc. Readers are likely to recontextualize as they read, delaying the processing of the raw material until the appropriate methods of processing become clearer.
  • "discredited lines of philosophical thought ... persist in the literary sphere long past their sell-by-date" - I've noticed that too.
  • "shouldn't talk about what the poem or an image means, so much as what meaning it generates" - I think that's the only way to do it. Within a certain group/context (e.g. of mainstream UK poets) there may be so much agreement about a poem's meaning and quality that one might, as a short-hand, say that the poem contains meaning, but give the text to a US avant-gardist and you'll get a surprise.
  • He says "My definition of overinterpretation is the avowal of the presence of effects ... discovered in your post-reading critical vivisection. I think these are to be strongly distrusted" but later says "We find ourselves attuned only to a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum, and whatever universe our senses conjure up for us is not the universe" - I re-read to compensate for my narrow tuning using telescopes, microscopes, (and Google, syllable-counting) etc, otherwise I'd miss too much. I need to re-read to catch up with some of my peers who don't have the blindspots that I have. Where does re-reading end and overinterpretation begin?
  • "Poets coin new metaphors that either reveal underlying mappings in existing conceptual metaphors, or - more often - they innovate new conceptual mappings" - I like this part of his essay, and the consequences.
  • "That dynamic is bidirectional; take 'the moon is a dinner plate'" - by chance a Judy Brown poem has "a thick white saucer like a worn-out moon, brittle from too much shining"!

2 related little stubs I've produced are

  • Attention, Agility and Poetic Effect - "Two issues relating to Attention are 1) what is being focussed on, and 2) the narrowness and intensity of the focus. Here I attempt to describe the effects of some poetic features. The up/down directions mentioned below pertain to the hierarchy formed by letters, words/sound, localized meaning, and general meaning. The in/out direction is relative to the text...."
  • Poetic Requirements - "To increase the poetic effect of a text, you can make the text more poetic, or you can make the reader adopt a more poetic approach. ... But of course there's more to it than having a text and a reader - the 2 need to get together under suitable conditions. In Acumen 54 (Jan 2006) Judy Gahagan wrote 'the once unique poetry habitat is a threatened one', a metaphor which can be extended. When a species' habitat shrinks, a few things are likely to happen ..."