Saturday 24 September 2011

Freeverse Poetry Book Fair

The Poetry Book Fair in London at Exmouth Market today was launched by the "legendary" Michael Horovitz. I met several people I'd only read about before, including Jon Stone and Kirsten Irving of Sidekick Books (I bought their "Coin Opera"), Matt Merritt, Jane Commane of Nine Arches Press (the last 2 and Jon Stone are in "The Best British Poetry 2011" which I bought from Salt's Chris Hamilton-Emery), and Sue Guiney. Amongst those I've met before were Katy Evans-Bush (whose "Egg Printing Explained" I brought), Peter Daniels, and HappenStance's Helena Nelson (from whom I bought Michael Loveday's "He said/ She said"). I sold 7 books (one of them mine, though I only told the buyer afterwards) while looking after the HappenStance stall for an hour.

It was good to see that poetry books are still being bought. I was struck by how nice people were about each other - especially behind their backs. The small press scene's a funny old world. The most common phrase I heard was "you don't look like your poetry".

Wednesday 21 September 2011

"Reality Hunger" and "Close Calls with Nonsense"

Yesterday I managed to browse through Stephen Burt's Close Calls with Nonsense and read David Shields' Reality Hunger. These books have been on my reading list for a while. Both are worth reading. Burt's is probably worth buying, though getting it in the UK might not be easy.

Close Calls with Nonsense (Graywolf Press, 2009)

This has sections trying to explain the work of some supposedly difficult poets - contemporary US (e.g. Armantrout) but also WC Williams and GB poets (Denise Riley and Muldoon). His name's associated with the term "Elliptical poets", those who "broke up syntax, but reassembled it; they tried (as had [Jory] Graham) to adapt Language poets' disruptions to traditional lyric goals (expressing a self and its feelings), and tried (as Graham did not) to keep their poems short, song-like or visually vivid". In his introduction he points out that one needs to keep an open mind

  • "Some of the most celebrated "difficult" poetry of the past ten years seems to me derivative, mechanical, shallow, soulless, and too clever by half"
  • "In pursuing certain virtues - colorful local effects, personae and personality, juxtaposition, close calls with nonsense, uncertainty, critiques of ordinary language - the current crop of American poets necessarily give up on others. I miss, in most contemporary poetry, the arguments, the extended rhetorical passages and essayistic digressions I enjoy in the poems of the 17th and 18th centuries (and in WH Auden and Marianne Moore)",

The explanations he gives are helpful, as are his tips - "Look for self-analyses or for frame-breaking moments when the poem stops to tell you what it describes". His writing style's approachable. As usual, Minimalism seems hard to explain, and I sometimes had trouble seeing why less ambiguous/challenging alternative methods weren't used by the poets. For example, on p.331 he quotes from "To a Poor Old Woman" to show "how Williams's line breaks work"

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her.

They taste good to her (you might not like them); They taste good (not merely adequate); she tastes them, taking them into her body, rather than merely contemplating them.

To me, italics would have made the points better (if indeed these were the points). Breaking the line after "good" is rather like putting a dash there - it emphasises "to her", thus making the statement more subjective. He reads it as if "good" is emphasised (because it's at the end of the line, I suppose). But at least Burt has expressed himself clearly; it's possible to agree/disagree rather than merely feel baffled. I'd recommend the book to anyone who feels that the current crop of young poets are unreadable.

Reality Hunger (Penguin, 2010)

A plea in 618 numbered paragraphs for fewer standard novels. He begins with "Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art" (p.3). He mentions that "extended aphorisms [Ecclesiastes, Confucius, Heraclitus] eventually crossed the border into essay" (p.8), that "essai" means "experiment", that "fiction" derives from "fingere" meaning "to shape", that according to Coetzee, the word "novel" "meant the form of writing that was formless, that had no rules, that made up its own rules as it went along". He likes a return to these original notions, where facts can be experimentally shaped. He likes mixed-form novels that combine essay, memoire, reportage, fable, etc (he mentions Sebold, Brian Fawcett, Bernard Cooper). He likes sampling (in this book he doesn't separate quotes from his own words, and he sometimes adjusts the quotes. The last section of the book lists the sources)

He distrusts the supposedly factual, quoting Marshall - "Autobiographical memory is a recollection of events or episodes, which we remember with great detail. What's stored in that memory isn't the actual events, but how those events made sense to us and fit into our experience", adding that "As a work get more autobiographical, more intimate, more confessional, more embarrassing, it breaks into fragments. Our lives aren't prepackaged along narrative lines and, therefore, by its very nature, reality-based art - underprocessed, underproduced - splinters and explodes" (p.27)

He dislikes chronological narrative as the principal structuring device - "The grandfather clock is the reflection of its historical period, when time was orderly and slow. .. By the 1930s and 1940s, wristwatches were neurotic and talked very fast. ... Next, we had liquid-crystal watches that didn't show any time at all until you pressed a button ... Now, no one wears a watch; your phone has the time" (p.123)

He likes Proust. He points out that Marcel plays a similar role to the "I" in poetry as regards the stance viz a viz the author. He writes "The poem and the essay are more intimately related than any two genres, because they're both ways of pursuing problems, or maybe trying to solve problems - The Dream Songs, the long prologue to Slaughterhouse-Five, pretty much all of Philip Larkin and Anne Carson, Annie Dillard's For the Time being" (p.202)

He likes short-shorts (Jayne Anne Phillip's "Sweethearts", Jerome Stern's "Morning News" etc) because they focus on the essentials. He likes novels that are more short story collections. He's not keen on books like "The Corrections", preferring "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men", "Nadja", "Letters to Wendy's" etc.

I guess he feels it's more psychologically honest to show that there's an author, to follow the twists and turns of thought rather than fake objectivity and watch the clock

  • "Serious nonfiction removes fiction's masks, stripping away monuments to civilisation to arrive at truths that destroy the writer and thereby encompass the reader - the last shred of human expression before silence seizes all words", (p.149)
  • "The beauty of reality-based art - art underwritten by reality hunger - is that it's perfectly situated between life itself and (unattainable) "life as art"", (p.166)
  • "It was exciting to see how part of something I had originally written as an exegesis of Joyce's "The Dead" could now be turned sideways and used as the final, bruising insight into someone's psyche. All literary possibilities opened up for me with this story. The way my mind thinks - everything is connected to everything else - suddenly seemed transportable into my writing", (p.173)

Monday 12 September 2011

Small press review sites

If only everyone who wrote poems bought them too. But here I want to make a different plea - if only people who read small-press publications (especially poetry) reviewed them too. By "review" I include little write-ups in a blog as well as printed articles.

Even if only a few per cent of people put their reviews online, the reader/writer balance would change, and small-press publications would receive more attention. On-line magazines tend not to have a reviews section, and the paper-based literary magazines that do print reviews (Acumen, for example) don't put them online.

When I put write-ups online nowadays I try to add links to online reviews. It's disappointing how few there are, even for publications by bigger presses (e.g. Bloodaxe). And quite often the personal reviews are full of praise. Some bloggers do take this side of things seriously, writing about books they don't like as well as those they do, using "review" as a blog keyword so that the reviews can easily be found. And there are review sites where a small group of people post reviews. Here's a list of sites worth a look if you want to find reviews of UK small-press pamphlets and books - contributions welcomed

Charles E. May's recent blog post on why he didn't review Valerie Trueblood's book makes interesting reading.

Tuesday 6 September 2011

Which competitions are worth entering nowadays?

I don't think that the UK has quite the same competition culture as the USA, but we're catching up. Here's how I decide which competitions to enter

I look at the fee/prize ratio when I enter competitions, and try to see where the money's going. I take into account the prestige of the competition, the judge, and the judging process. I only bother with poem competitions where the 1st prize is more than 100 times the fee. I'm more lenient with story competitions.

We're beginning to have magazines that charge reading fees, which is essentially a competition. I think that's fair enough for prose, especially if the fee includes a copy of the magazine.

We have a few (far fewer than the USA) competitions where the winner's book is published. I'm sympathetic to the established ones - they offer one of the few routes to publication; faster and much less hassle than submitting to publishers.

For the bigger UK competitions (Bridport, National Poetry Competition) not only is the fee/prize ratio good (Bridport's poetry/story 1st prize is 5000 pounds for a 6 or 7 pound fee; the Flash prize is 1000 pounds for a 5 pound fee), but the lesser prizes are worthwhile too. Getting on the short-list is noteworthy, and there's a good chance of anthology/newspaper publication later.

After a bit of naming-and-shaming a few years ago in the UK there's been a trend towards transparency of the judging process. For example, the Bridport rules say "Experienced readers assist the named judges in selecting the shortlists, headed by Jon Wyatt for short stories and Candy Neubert for poems". In the National Poetry Competition's FAQ they say "Unlike many poetry competitions, we do not implement a sifting / elimination round. Each entry is seen by at least two of the judges."

So I end up entering a big competition every year or 2. I enter a publication-prize competition every 2 or 3 years. I enter about 8 small competitions a year - more prose than poetry. I guess I've come out about even overall, and I feel I've helped out some worthwhile magazines and organisations.

Thursday 1 September 2011

My next booklet

Usually when I go on holiday I try to return with something literary. This time you'll have to make do with the shadow of me in Egypt's Western Sahara. Well before going to Egypt I'd set some of my pieces there (including "Escape" from my poetry booklet, a pivotal piece according to a reviewer). I've written no Egyptian-based pieces since returning - the experience hasn't soaked in yet.

Back home there was good news when I started catching up with the mail - "By All Means" (my booklet of short stories) should be coming out later this year, published by Nine Arches Press. I suspect about half of it will be previously unpublished material.

Marketing will be tough - pamphlets are harder to push than books, and short stories are harder to push than poems. Still, having a poetry booklet and a story booklet out together might be mutually advantageous. I think one piece was in my original submission for both of the booklets.