Saturday, 18 March 2023

States of Independence (2023)

I went to States of Independence in Leicester today. I caught up with D.A. Prince and Roy Marshall (both as charming as ever), and went to some talks. Most interesting was one about AI and creativity.

  • Simon Perril looked at the history of creativity, asking "Is self-expression all there is?". He mentioned Chatterton, Dada, Oulipo, Flarf, found poetry etc. I hadn't seen "Tree of Codes" by Jonathan Safran Foer. Curation, recycling, and re-contextualing have always been part of the tradition (moreso in pre-copyright times - often the norm). What happens when writers put together pre-existing phrases rather than pre-existing words?
  • Prof Tracy Harwood followed this up by showing milestones in the progression of AI - Lovelace, Turing, Deep Blue - then concentrated on art and writing. The art examples especially impressed me. Photoshop-like effects are where the style/content separation ideas took off. Some artists using AI describe the results as collaborations, which is fair enough.

Before, I passed an axe-throwing place near the city centre. After, I visited West End (Narborough Road) for the first time. I didn't know it existed. I've only gone along the Golden Mile before. I wasn't hungry but next time I am, I'll know where to go.

Sunday, 5 March 2023

CB1 - Peter Daniels

Tonight Peter Daniels was the main act at CB1. He and I have had pamphlets published by HappenStance. There the similarities end - "Peter Daniels has won many prizes including the Arvon and TLS poetry competitions and has published several collections and pamphlets including two Poetry Business prizewinners". Performers often read from their phones nowadays. It was heartening to see that Peter read from real books containing multi-colour post-its. In the first half he read some of his translations of Vladislav Khodasevich. I bought "My Tin Watermelon", his 2109 Salt book.

The open-mic poems certainly had their moments - "Two years aren't enough to quench the why", "When the rain bongoed ... on the roof" etc.

Wednesday, 1 March 2023

Cephalopress Writers in Conversation: Alexandra Fössinger

Yesterday I attended a Zoom event featuring Alexandra Fössinger. There was discussion between poet and publishers with just a few poems, then a Q+A session. I think the format worked well.

She revealed that there was a significant backstory to her recent book, "Contrapasso". Does knowing the backstory help with appreciating the poems? Not especially, but I was interested to know that she had felt the need to conceal details, and distance herself from the story (by writing in English, etc). She said she hadn't realised that she'd concealed so much and had made an effort during rewrites to be less obscure, but she liked the idea of leaving areas that readers might get lost in. A difficult balance.

Whenever a poem is driven by intense emotion it must be hard for the poet to assess its effect on the reader. I don't trust my evaluation of such poems that I write, and am wary of sending them away - justifiably in most cases, in retrospect. But achieving that objectivity can take years. Might as well let editors make earlier decisions.

Sunday, 26 February 2023


I went to Coventry yesterday. I haven't been there since it was UK City of Culture in 2021. And I've never visited Fargo Village - a bit like a little Camden Lock but with more containers.

I didn't know about The Philip Larkin pub either, or Dippy the dinosaur. But I knew about the roofless cathedral, the medieval (restored) buildings that survived the wartime bombings, the canals etc. It's an interesting city to wander around. The house where my grandfather lived as a children no longer exists. Even the street has gone.

I knew about Godiva of course (there's a taylor's shop named after her) but I'd forgotten about Peeping Tom. On the drive home I popped into Rugby (Rubert Brooke's birthplace; a statue of him's there) and Market Harborough (with its "improve the time" sundial).

Friday, 17 February 2023

Judging short story competitions

The Bristol short story prize in 2022 attracted 2,545 entries. With a word limit of 4,000 words, that’s getting on for 10 million words to read. How is a winner found? It’s a lot of effort, which is reflected in the entry fee for story competitions – often 50% higher than the fee for poetry. And the reading is usually shared out.

Tracy Fells wrote in 2021 that “the hardest part of any competition is getting past the early readers.” First impressions matter – it’s like speed dating. Many entries are eliminated at this stage because they don’t follow the rules. And a weak beginning might be sufficient excuse to dump a piece, especially after a long day of reading.

In the Bristol competition less than 1% of the stories get through to the short-list, so getting that far is worth mentioning in CVs. Given the range of tastes of the judges, and margins of error, there’s no guarantee that all the “best” stories will get through. I recall one judge of another competition, subsequently seeing a non-shortlisted piece in print, saying that if they’d seen the piece as a judge it would have won a prize.

To impress in the final stage of judging, speed-dating tricks alone won’t work – there needs to be more to the story than meets the eye. If there’s more than one judge at the final stage, the winning entry may be a compromise. Long ago in a Stand magazine poetry competition the 2 judges disagreed so much that in the end they each produced a list of prizewinners. More recently a short Flash piece won a story competition, which upset some entrants. Since then, more competitions have a minimum word limit as well as a maximum one.

To check on the first-stage judges, some stories acknowledged to be good could be added to the entries.

The final-stage judges want to be asked again, and the competition organisers want more entries next time, so there’s pressure towards selecting winners that losers won’t object to. Often the more daring pieces are only commended, however good they are.

Monday, 13 February 2023


I like tight plots and neat endings. I like other structures too of course, but not the endings that look as if the author ran out of puff. Michael Donaghy used to get away with tight pieces but they seem out of fashion nowadays, especially in poetry, partly as a consequence of Forms being used less, and partly because more poems are in a voice, and people don't organise their thoughts neatly. There's more ostentatious unravelling than modest attempts to tidy up a little corner of the world. Certainty is suspect. Openness gives readers the chance to think that there's more to it than meets the eye.

Open-endedness isn't easy to do well. Multiple unspecified possibilities are easy to hint at. A character may finally gaze at the horizon, throw away a map, or close the door behind them, pause, then walk on - signifying a new start into the unknown. Or maybe an either/or option is ahead - a character may be deciding whether to say "yes" to a proposal, or to run. Harder is to somehow make the ending shed new light on the earlier content.

Tuesday, 31 January 2023

Hardy Country

I visited Hardy's Wessex last weekend. His National Trust cottage wasn't open, but I managed to visit his Casterbridge (Dorchester) and some other locations.

Weymouth (Hardy's Budmouth). This is a Bathing Machine (a changing room that could be wheeled in and out of the water). There are many palm trees down there.

Puddletown (Hardy's Weatherbury)

Wareham isn't in Hardy's book, though it's on the Hardy Way. My father was born there. The Quay is the subject of more than one jigsaw.

Corfe Castle, on the Hardy Way, isn't in his books either. It's another popular jigsaw and photography subject. It's halfway between my father's birthplace and Swanage, my mother's. A car like the one in the jigsaw was parked down the road towards Swanage.

Swanage (Hardy's Knollsea). Here's a concrete pillbox, crab and lobster pots, and a folly from London. The ships that took Portland stone to London were ballasted with odds and ends for the return journey - bollards, etc.

The Globe, on the edge of Swanage. Sudan is huge.