Monday 26 April 2010

How low can you get?

Before worrying about plot there are other underlying layers of meaning that are often ignored by readers. Readers are aware that poets commonly exploit the visceral effect of sound but there are other conveyors of meaning too.

Colours - in the old days text was black on a white background. On the web there's no technical or financial reason to continue with this default - it's more a matter of choice. Web writers who choose black-on-white may want readers to think about the paper tradition, or obits?

Fonts - neglect them at your peril

  • "I prefer to read the poems of Wallace Stevens in the Electra typeface that was used for the 1954 Collected Poems ... For me, the experience and the pleasure of reading Steven's poetry are not just intensified by this typeface, they are intimately part of it, so that reading Stevens in another font seems unusual and even disconcerting" (S.Matterson and D.Jones, "Studying Poetry")
  • "Many of the older typefaces have historic contexts. Using a particular typeface can therefore add a subtle extra dimension to a book. The first edition of Edwin Morgan's Sonnets from Scotland for example was set in Scotch Roman ... Setting such a book in a distinctly English face, such as Caslon, for instance, would seem inappropriate unless you were doing it very deliberately to make an ironic point", (Gerry Cambridge)

Choice of Language - The language you choose to write in has implications. In Colonial countries, the implications are clear, but even in the UK, Welsh and Scottish writers have decisions to make. Don Paterson writes some poems in Scots (with a glossary). Others write dialogues in Glaswegian that can be hard for English people to understand. Even writers who have no choice of language might need to choose between using "colour" and "color" - is using the latter succumbing to US global domination?

Word play - Some word play draws attention to itself, but acrostics might lurk unnoticed for years. A relatively well-known one is by Nabokov - his short story "The Vane Sisters" has an acrostic final paragraph where the first letters of each word spell out a message from beyond the grave.

Whose Language is it anyway? - Within a language there are many styles. How much does adopting a style mean that the writer is also signing up to the consequences of that style? Is using "he" rather than "s/he" a vote for "Man-made language"? In the States some writers decided that Language wasn't at all neutral. Reagan, Feminism, Black Power, Multi-nationals, Colonialism etc, all get tangled up in this issue. It's clearest in poetry. In the USA especially, Forms came to be considered WASPish, right-wing, male. Even clarity became the oppressor's smooth-talking tongue.

  • According to Susan Vanderborg, Olson's "narrators associate a flat, statistical style of documentation that forecloses interpretation with a bureaucratic pendant for dehumanizing persons as enemies or casualties".
  • The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets went further, breaking sentences into disjointed phrases and breaking phrases into words in order to cleanse language of corruption and banality. Lyn Hejinian tells us that language poetry "invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierachies".
  • N. NourbeSe Philip "saw the lyric voice as one of the tools used to further the ends of colonialism".

I sympathise with some of these views, but some of the later ones seem to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater (and throwing the bath out too).

Saturday 17 April 2010

Sphinx and pamphlets

I've picked up many poetry pamphlets through the years - some from Alternative bookshops like "News from Nowhere" (Liverpool) and "Mushroom bookshop" (Nottingham), a few bought by mail, and some as the result of entering pamphlet competitions. I have a few A6 booklets from the Merseyside Poetry Minibooks Series (Windows, Liverpool) - Raymond Tallis, Lynne Greenway, etc. I have "A Static Ballroom" by David Morley and "Apocalypso" by Tim Cumming, both published by Scratch, and I've "The Scrap Heap" by Other Publications and Pork Pie Press (in dialect). I've several from HappenStance, Templar, Leafe and The Poetry Business too. If the choice is between a pamphlet and a book bloated by sub-standard poems, pamphlets make a lot of sense.

People have observed that pamphlets are on the rise of late. During this phase Sphinx magazine from Happenstance has been documenting progress. Issue 12 of Sphinx arrived today - the last paper issue. It's a shame that it's going, but as the editorial says - think "Fawlty Towers". In 60 pages it deals with Templar, Salt, Gerry Cambridge and several other big players. Not surprisingly, the contributors differ in many ways

  • "I've spoken openly before about not being a poet", Alex McMillen (Templar)
  • "I want to carve out more time from Salt to get back to my writing life ... That's what I'm here for, really, the writing", Chris Hamilton-Emery (Salt)

Looks aren't always everything

  • "Design and production are a core aspect of our publishing practice and we strive for excellence as well as originality in this", Alex McMillen (Templar)
  • "readers won't mind if their poetry comes in the form of a stapled bundle of A4 sheets with a plain cover ... The format is irrelevant; the integrity of magazine and editor paramount", Kevin Bailey (HQ magazine)
  • "average text can be redeemed by the sheer beauty of lettering if it's elegantly used", Gerry Cambridge
  • "acknowledging good design as an important concept in print publication is a big step forward", Gerry Cambridge
  • "An occasional pastime of mine in bookshops is trying to guess typefaces used in books ... Trying to guess a typeface is like a form of typographical birdwatching", Gerry Cambridge

Some commonly held assumptions aren't always valid

  • "it became clear that bringing the magazine out quarterly was an editorial straitjacket. I decided it was better to wait for a critical mass of good poetry to come in before publishing an issue", Kevin Bailey (HQ magazine)
  • "most advertising, inserting, leafleting. launches have little commercial value ... Reviews are super, but they're not really sales drivers", Chris Hamilton-Emery (Salt)

Technology in the form of the Web provided the small press with an advertising and selling opportunity, but the emergence of e-books is a potential threat.

Saturday 10 April 2010

1000 literary quotes

My collection of Literary Quotes now has over 1000 entries. I don't agree with all the entries, or even understand them. They're more for literature students than creative writers, though I find them stimulating for poetry as well as articles. An earlier version was found on Michael Donaghy's laptop after his death. Here are some items that caught my eye when browsing through.

  • In a truly beautiful work of art the content should do nothing, the form everything, Schiller
  • Form is a straitjacket in the way that a straitjacket was a straitjacket for Houdini, Paul Muldoon
  • I'm being somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but only somewhat when I say that a poem is the city of language just as prose is its countryside. Prose extends laterally filling the page's horizon unimpeded, while poetry is marked by dense verticality, by layerings of meaning and sound. Cities and poetry also share compression, heterogeneity, juxtaposition, Cole Swensen
  • We speak of understanding a sentence in the sense in which it can be replaced by another which says the same; but also in the sense in which it cannot be replaced by any other, Wittgenstein
  • [Beauty is truth, truth beauty] strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem, and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue. And I suppose that Keats meant something by it, however remote his truth and his beauty may have been from these words in ordinary use. ... The statement of Keats seems to me meaningless: or perhaps the fact that it is grammatically meaningless conceals another meaning from me, T.S. Eliot
  • Like thatching or clog dancing, literary criticism seems to be something of a dying art, Terry Eagleton
  • What the theorists of modernism and postmodernism have done is to encourage poetry that needs justification, critical props, excuses for the wilfulness of self-indulgent individuals - as if most needed any further excuse, Peter Forbes
  • He is this afternoon writing a poem with great spirit: always a sign of well being with him. Needless to say, it is an intensely dismal poem, Florence Hardy

Thursday 1 April 2010

The WWW and Literary Standards

In Acumen 24 (1995!) I wrote an article called Poetry, Technology and the Internet. Though the Web's growth has been explosive since then, it hasn't been matched by increased Quality Control. This article (an update from one in Acumen 63) looks at how such mechanisms might e-merge.

I hope I'm not oversimplifying the past too much by suggesting that once upon a time, hierarchies of periodicals, publishers and review placements established a scale of achievement. Further selection for school books, anthologies, awards, and interviews in non-literary media confirmed these indicators of quality. The people who made these choices generally did so as part of their job.

Several 20th century developments fractured this framework. In the US, many authors started working within academia, and with the growth of literary theory the poems to be studied were not always chosen for quality but for how usefully they illustrated a hypothesis. The avant-garde (particularly Modernism), sporadic popularity of performance poetry, and the influence of minority and international poetry popularised new aesthetics that sometimes diluted (or even disabled) mainstream opinion. This fragmentation of genres led to fragmentation in evaluation too. Meanwhile, the poetry book market contracted, so even less significance was attached to poetry's remaining mainstream practitioners and critics.

The Web accelerated and exaggerated these trends, and is increasingly becoming the predominant mode of distribution, but mechanisms of judgement are slower to make the switch. Prestigious web-sites have come into being mostly by prestige transfer - they're Web off-shoots of accredited print magazines or newspapers. Small press examples include Sphinx (Happenstance) and Envoi (Cinnamon), both of which have dozens of reviews online. Sites like www.reviewsofbooks have collected online book reviews which mostly come from sources originating from the paper world. The Web has produced native alternatives - sites like Ron Silliman's (whose authority depends on an individual) and Jacket (which has gained a reputation by the traditional virtues of quality and longevity). However, few web magazines have a reviews section (reviews tend to be in blogs) and there's no hierarchy of reviewing sites, no Web equivalent of "reviewed in the TLS".

As long as traditional paper bastions of canon-formation survive, the Web will have trouble establishing credentials. Prestige depends partly on longevity, which gives paper magazines an edge, and printed magazines because of cost are constrained by space which forces selectivity. If a paper magazines transfers to the WWW with the same editor and amount of material (Stride, for example) one might expect the quality and prestige to be unaffected, but the nature of readership and submissions is likely to change which in turn might have a detrimental effect. In practise, the online magazine is likely to be poorly funded and under new editorship (see the TriQuarterly story).

Each medium sometimes reviews works from the other, but the traffic's mostly one way; paper magazines might only be quarterly, and newspapers no longer have room for much poetry. As paper magazines disappear, the centre of gravity will shift towards the Web anyway but how can the migration of judgement mechanisms be managed and encouraged? Unless an effort is made to preserve informed opinion and debate, reviews will disappear, replaced by adverts or a poetry equivalent of "Richard and Judy". The respected arbiters of taste in the paper world could be singled out for assistance - they need to become visible and active on the Web, not just use e-mail and google. By committing themselves to the Web they'd enhance its authority. Pivotal institutions need encouragement to migrate web-wards in such a way that their influence isn't eroded, and grants could help key review-orientated publications to be put online.

However, the Web isn't a mirror image of the paper world. Some concepts won't translate well, and attitudes might have to change

  • Popularism - The people who equate "popular" or "free" with "bad" in the paper world will need to adapt when they use the Web
  • Quality - The whole notion of monolithic Quality Control is already an out-worn concept, and of course wasn't even true in the past. The Web is an excellent "word-of-mouth" medium, and there's no shortage of opinion on-line - each blog is a soapbox, and Amazon hosts thousands of opinions. This may not be a bad thing, some say - power will be snatched from the grip of a small clique - but how can consensus emerge?
  • Changed Author/Reader relationship - The distance between authors and readers is reduced by social networking, thereby changing the nature of reviewing - it becomes more immediate and viral.
  • Archiving - Who will archive? How will poets be rediscovered if by forgetting to renew their service-provider subscription their work disappears?
  • Education - What will set-texts look like? How will copyright issues and loss of revenue be dealt with?
  • Measuring success - Booksale figures will be replaced by download/hit-rates, and review-counts replaced by blog mentions, but what other criteria will be used?

Behind all this change is the issue of who pays the new "gatekeepers". I'll conclude by listing some possibilities

  • Readers may have to pay for some Web publications. The TLS, PN Review and Contemporary Poetry Review already work this way to some extent, and many American magazines are available online to academics, at a price (Poetry is free but that's a special case).
  • Perhaps the free-viewing/paying-for-submission model could be adopted - there's talk of using this in the academic world.
  • Maybe editors could be bypassed, replaced by an online readers voting system (after all, the TLS poetry competition was run that way).

I think where paper has the advantage at the moment is the quality of the readership - people (often older people) in an influential position are likely to be paper-biased, but not for long.