Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Recent publications

I'm behind on publication announcements. Here are the most recent ones -

Friday, 4 January 2019

Offensive poetry

Summer 2017's "Poetry Review" has a feature on poetry that causes offense, with articles by Kathryn Maris (Transgression and transcendence: poetry and provocation), Vahni Capaldeo (Punishable bodies: poetry on the offensive) and David Wheatley. Poems by Tony Hoagland ("The Change", etc), Frederick Sedel, Craig Raine ("Gatwick"), Bobby Parker, Alan Jenkins ("Heritage"), Shivanee Ramlochan, and Catullus are mentioned.

Elsewhere

  • There's Dave Coates' On the Pale Sun of Toby Martinez de las Rivas. The poet's written a response
  • According to the NY Times, Anders Carlson-Wee (white) wrote a poem in the voice of a homeless person begging for handouts, offering advice on how to play on the moral self-regard of passers-by by playing up, or even inventing, hardship. His attempt at black vernacular didn't go down well. The poem was published in "The Nation" who later apologized for it.

Here I'll try to check-list some factors that affect the severity of such incidents and their aftermath.

Intent

Was the poet aware that offense might be caused?

  • Perhaps they didn't realise - Times change, cultures have different outlooks. Words in particular go through fashion changes. "Queer" is one example. It may now be "claimed" by gays, but in the old days it was insulting. Even now it may still be used insultingly.
  • Perhaps they realised, wanting (gratuitously?) to cause offense. Art has a history of wanting to shock. In her article Maris writes "Provocation for its own sake can be tedious. For me, however, the most exclusionary and dangerous poem is a boring one, the one that gives up on any hope of engagement. Provocation, for all its perils, for all its potential for failure, is an indication, at the very least, that the poet desires to make a connection."
  • Perhaps they knew, but thought they'd covered themselves sufficiently. There are various ways that deliberately offensive material might be excused -
    • The offensive matter may be included in order to attack it - e.g. putting the words into a villainous or stupid character's mouth
    • It's Art, so anything goes - as long as it's good art, as long as "it has enough technical and imaginative conviction to transcend its transgression" (Maris)
    • It's erotica not pornography
    • The author belongs to the group they're offending

Impact

  • Is the target an individual or a group? Generalised mockery is risky (not all Poles are plumbers, not all Essex girls are "Essex girls", etc). Generalising about (or making fun of) professions seems less serious - you're allowed to mock IT staff and top executives.
  • Does the piece make fun of others' views or of innate characteristics? If fun is made of a trait that someone has little control over (race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, skin-colour) it's worse than mocking their views on (say) Brexit.
  • Is the target "fair game"? Satire defends itself this way. One can make fun of Trump's hair but not a fellow poet's, or baldies in general. You're allowed to mock racists, homophobes, etc.
  • Is the target unconcerned? If only third-parties care, perhaps no offense has been caused
  • Is the target defenceless? Is there a right of reply?
  • Is the offense widely broadcast?
  • Who has exposed the offense? - Is there a witch-hunt? Is there an attempt to gain publicity? Has someone been rummaging through through old poems (by TS Eliot say, or Ted Hughes) until something's found?

Outcome

  • Is an apology enough? It wasn't for Salman Rushdie.
  • Should the offender's writings be avoided? Can a bad person write good poetry, or at least poetry that others can learn from? Did Pound's views on Fascism make "On the Metro" a bad poem?
  • Should writers self-censure? It's safer not to write poetry that could offend but how easy is it to do? For example, any piece that involves an abortion can cause offense, even if the woman suffers afterwards. Who should control a writer's work? Where should respect/tolerance for others' opinions end?
  • Is it remiss of critics to condemn the words only of those who won't react by using sticks and stones. Surely there are far more influential, powerful people to criticise.

Comedy

Similar issues affect comedy. Making bad taste jokes about 9/11 on 9/12 wouldn't have been wise. Even now, only Jews (if that) can joke about the holocaust. Any joke about dying can upset someone who's just received bad news. A joke that Ellen Degeneres made about piggy backing Usian Bolt so she could run faster was chastised on social media for evoking the memory of slavery.

Some comedians feel they're being forced underground. A US TV documentary, 'Can We Take A Joke?', suggested that comedians could be at the forefront of a battle against a new assault on free speech. The press-notes point out that “While people have always found something to be offended by, their ability to organize a groundswell of opposition to — and public censure of — their offender has never been more powerful. Today we’re all one clumsy joke away from public ruin.

I think comedians are more politically correct nowadays - more confessional and self-denegrating than before (safer options, used by poets too), with fewer mother-in-law and drunk Glaswegian jokes. I don't think it's harmed the quality of the comedy.

Conclusion

We have a greater awareness of how prejudices develop and how they're sustained by minor aggressions, etc. We're more aware of the variations in people's sensitivity to bullying.

But as pointed out above, it's also easier nowadays to record a clumsy off-air aside, to react loudly even to accidental transgressions, to spread opinions virally before there's been a chance to correct misunderstandings.

Sub-cultures, each with different moral outlooks, are more likely to have access to each other's output, and have more ways to complain about it.

So perhaps poets need to be more cautious nowadays, not least when exchanging views at the bar after a reading. After all, constraints can aid creativity.

p.s. Soon after I posted this, Issue 40 of "The Dark Horse" arrived. In his editorial, Gerry Cambridge writes "Poetry ... seems increasingly an arena governed and to some degree imperilled by thought-police ... The atmosphere is one of nervy compliance to the dictated mores of outraged opinion". Rob A MacKenzie has an essay about the Martinez incident that's well worth reading.

Monday, 31 December 2018

My literary 2018

At the start of 2017 I decided that I'd try to increase quantity of output (easy to do, since I write a poem a month if that, and few stories), being less precious about quality, and I decided to send more things off, not ignoring themed issues and calls for submissions. The year was fairly successful - about 20 acceptances, and more pieces written than usual. People say that the wider the base of the pyramid, the higher the pyramid, and that's what I found. I got into some places I'd not been in before, and wrote several pieces that I was pleased with.

In 2018 I intended to build on this. In addition I decided to start afresh, going to workshops on how to write, how to get published, etc. I also walked around with a notepad. However, it's been one of my worst years for acceptances. Why?

  • Several publications stipulate that people shouldn't submit for a year after being published, so there were places I couldn't send to in 2018.
  • In 2017 I had a backlog of unpublished material. Many of the acceptances were of old work that I'd made more marketable.
  • Though I think I'm writing better, I suspect that actually I'm becoming more niche, less fashionable. An elegant prose style maybe, but few characters to empathise with. Interesting poetry, but disruptive style-switching.
  • I've had several near-acceptances (short-listed, etc) that in other years might have been acceptances.
  • If I'm trying to improve quality by widening the base, I need to widen the base a lot to improve quality a little. I know of people who've widened their base by an order of magnitude. My increase was nothing like that.

What's perhaps most disappointing is that I've a handful of c.2000-word short stories written in the last 5 years whose publication I thought would be just a matter of time. Silly me. So next year -

  • I'll pay for submitting - several magazines (e.g. Ambit) now charge for submissions. I don't mind this - after all, they need to cover submittable costs, and in the olden days submissions weren't free anyway, requiring 2 stamps and 2 envelopes. I've avoided such publications up to now.
  • I'll more brutally cannibalize old stuff
  • I'll try more US paper magazines
  • In the bio that I send mags I'll not say when my books/booklets were published (too long ago).

On the plus side I'm getting more pleasure from others' successes - fellow members of writers groups I go to are appearing in several magazines.

Sunday, 23 December 2018

A UK poetry submission schedule for early 2019

I shall try to submit to several of these (mostly UK) competitions and submission windows -

Saturday, 15 December 2018

A UK/Eire prose submission schedule for early 2019

As more magazines introduce submission windows, and competitions increase their significance, it's worth planning ahead. I shall try to submit to these (mostly UK) competitions and submission windows -

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Gran Canaria

An all-in deal that includes alcohol is a challenge to one's will power, especially if there aren't many other distractions. I think I coped - alcohol doesn't fuel my style of creativity. I saw my first whale in the wild, and the dunes were sometimes Sarahan. We went through the gay nude part of the beach on the way.

I read "Mislaid" by Nell Zink, "Bearings" by Isobel Dixon, "Honeycomb" by M.R. Peacocke (the sunset suits her pamphlet) and "The things I would tell you" by Sabrina Mahfouz (ed) - writing by British Muslim women. I wrote 3 little pieces - about 1200 words all told.

The interior of the island is raw geology with a few little villages in the process of abandonment or touristification. Here's a little community stage that might not have been so different years ago. No Moroccan influence, though the mainland's not that far away.

History and culture weren't easy to find. There's little evidence left that there was an indigenous (Berber) population, and churches are few and far between. But the island's not short of interest - "Secret" is a Swingers' Club by a Spar shop, in a themed block of buildings (Holland, Italy, etc).

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.