Monday 31 December 2012

2012 for the record

6 poems and 8 prose pieces accepted this year (several of which were written years ago), and 1 book published. 3 decent stories and 4 reasonable poems written.

This holiday I've sent 8 poems off, prepared a poem pamphlet and a story pamphlet, and assembled my Illustrated CV

Saturday 22 December 2012

Poetry sales

See the revised version of this article.

Saturday 15 December 2012

Creativity and madness

From "The Psychologist", December 2012 - Simon Kyaga et al (Karolinska Instiutet, Sweden) has compared the occupation of over a million mental health patients over a 40 year period. The conclusions were that

  • "people in creative professions, such as musicians, artists and scientists, were no more likely to have a mental health diagnosis than people in non-creative professions, such as accountants, with one exception - bipolar disorder"
  • "first degree relatives of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and possibly autism, were more likely than healthy controls to be in creative professions"
  • "In contrast with creative professions as a whole, focusing only on authors revealed a far stronger link with mental illness. Authors, compared with controls, were more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, drug abuse, and to take their own lives"

For more details, see the Journal of Psychiatric Research Volume 47, Issue 1, January 2013, Pages 83–90

Friday 14 December 2012

Review of "By All Means"

Tony Williams has written the first review of "By All Means", for which much thanks. He points out that nearly all the characters could be middle-aged men, which is true. A previously published female-POV piece and 2 non-character pieces failed to make the cut. I've tried doing kid-POV, unsuccessfully.

He sorts the stories into three groups - "the artfully constructed personal histories, the metafiction-y ones, and the rest". When I submitted the long-list of stories, I sent a classification too -
  • Mainstream - Prague 86, The Big Climb, Late, Doors and Windows, Olga [4 others not chosen]
  • Pretentious - [all 3 not chosen]
  • Gloomy loner - Fractals [1 other not chosen]
  • Non-realist - [all 3 not chosen]
  • Comedy - [all 2 not chosen]
  • Narratively challenging - Method of Loci, Definitions [2 others not chosen]

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Magazines closing down

The WWW and increased postal rates make life ever harder for paper magazines. "Smiths Knoll" has published its 50th and final issue of poetry. An article is on Anthony Wilson's blog. There are poems I write that will now have no home.

But online magazines, some of which have been around for years, are falling away too. Keeping a magazine going is a slog, and even if there are no publication costs, online magazines use up as much editor-time as paper ones. Duotrope says that "Horizon Review" is permanently closed. The Flash outlets "Quickfiction", "Flashquake" and "elimae" (started in 1996?) all seem to be closing after lifetimes of years. "Fiction at Work" has gone too. And as Matt Merritt reported, "Umbrella" is closing after 6 years.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Troubadour International Poetry Prize 2012

The 3 Troubadour prizewinners who I've met - Vanessa Gebbie, Judy Brown and Paul Stephenson - conveniently stood together in the recent Prize Night photograph. I went on weekend poetry workshops in Suffolk with Judy and Paul (he won 2nd prize). They've both lived abroad and have other interests. Judy's Loudness was shortlisted for the Forward and Aldebugh prizes, and Paul's in many mags (and has been anthologised in Adventures in form). He's often more experimental than the other two. A book is surely in the offing (or am I being old-fashioned?).

Vanessa Gebbie won the £2,500 first prize. Unexpected perhaps, because she's hardly published a poem, but she's been shortlisted twice in the Bridport and if you read her short-story collections and novel (The Coward's Tale) my guess is that your surprize will disappear. Congratulations to all of them.

Thursday 29 November 2012


On Sunday I had to take a son to Rugby to play hockey. I didn't think that Rugby and Cambridge had much in common, but coincidences abounded. Having parked the car opposite "Bargain Booze" we walked around. Firstly, we passed a memorial to Sir Frank Whittle. I pass a blue plaque about him each day that I go to work - I didn't realise that his Jet Engine development happened in Rugby.

We noticed a Rupert Brooke pub, which surprised me because there's one in Grantchester. Later, by chance, I passed his place of birth. We also visited Rugby school (which is where his father worked).

The hockey event took place in fields far from the school we had the address for, so we asked for directions. The name of the road rang a bell - Nine Arches Press's address!

We didn't have time to see the museum of Rugby, though there were reminders throughout the city. Stefano Bettarello was the only Italian Rugby player featured on the tourist walk.

Friday 16 November 2012

The Short Review and B O D Y

After a short break, The Short Review is back. Started up by Tania Hershman it "brings you original reviews of new, not-quite-so-new and classic collections and anthologies, written by reviewers many of whom are also short story writers themselves and who love short fiction."

B O D Y is worth a read too - it's been going since July 2012 but I've only just discovered it.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

A workshop about sentences

From Words to Flash are my notes for a workshop I gave about about writing sentences.

Wednesday 31 October 2012

Featured at Nine Arches Press

A story of mine is on the Nine Arches Press blog. I've added some comments.

Saturday 20 October 2012

The "By All Means" blog

As an experiment I've started a blog at By All Means where I'll add articles about particular stories (e.g. Fractals), articles about the stories in general (e.g. Where stories come from, and where they go) and whatever else comes to mind.

Monday 15 October 2012

Competition poems

Few poets earn much from their poetry books, so they might as well get money from their poems first. The National Poetry Competition, Bridport prize and Cardiff competition all have 5000 pound first prizes. You might expect the famous poets to make a killing. Jo Shapcott has indeed won the National Poetry Competition twice, but as often as not relative unknowns win. Are famous poets richer than we thought (not bothering to enter competitions), or does the level playing field of anonymity cut them down to size?

There are several reasons why a worthy poem might not win a prize.

  • There's not only more subjectivity in poetry judging, but there are types of poetry that judges may well not understand let alone like
  • Poetry has many one-hit wonders. What distinguishes famous poets from the also-rans might be the quantity of decent poems they produce rather than the quality of their best poems.
  • The qualities required of a poem to get noticed amongst thousands of others may not be those that are highly regarded in other situations.
  • The judging-by-committee nature of competitions discourages innovation.

My guess is that judges (who are often well paid) will want to judge again, so they don't want to stir up controversy (especially from competitors who think they've been hard done by - the competition organisers want people to enter in future years). They'll play safe with the prizewinners, putting the odd non-standard piece amongst the minor prizes to encourage non-mainstreamers to submit again.

Is it worth researching the judge? Though you shouldn't assume that poets only like the sort of poetry they like themselves, if you write like Jorie Graham, Bob Dylan, or in tight verse forms you might like to check whether your style lands on a judge's blind-spot.

Here are some quotes about competitions -

  • According to Rialto (Summer 2012) the 1951 National Poetry Competition attracted over 1500 entries, 1300 of which had no literary merit according to the judges. Only 7 poems were thought to be publishable.
  • I once wrote "Winning competitions can be like applying for a job. The first stage is more to do with avoiding errors in order to get in the short-list. The second stage is where depth is revealed". The need to get through the first stage may compromise the poem, but the requirement of the 2nd stage may also be a problem.
  • In Assent 65/2 D.A.Prince has a review of Robert Seatter's "Writing King Kong" in which she says "He's left behind much of the excitable display of virtuosity characterising his first collection, with its reassuring basketful of competition winners, and built on the strengths of his second book to produce a relatively quieter collection, more secure and confident. It's as though he no longer needs the morale-boosting success in competitions; he has reached his mature style, and has the assurance to trust his own instincts as to what works best in fitting these poems together"
  • "A 'competition poem' is different. It has to stand on its own feet. It can have no relation to the poet’s other work because the judges don’t know who the poet is. The poet has to believe that this poem is worth thousands of pounds, and because of that the poem has to be not only well-crafted and original, it also has to be startling" (Kurt Heinzelman and Ian McMillan, 2009 Cardiff International Poetry Competition)
  • "When we were judging [The Booker] we tried three different voting systems and each time a different winner emerged", Rowan Pelling, the Observer, March 9, 2008
  • When Stand ran a poetry competition in 1995 with 2 judges, the judges didn't agree with or respect each others opinion, so there were 2 lists of prizewinners.
  • "We felt that the main prizewinners should touch on ... the big issues of death and love", Matthew Sweeney, New Welsh Review, No. 40.

and here are some related resources

Monday 8 October 2012

The "By All Means" launch

About 30 people attended the launch beside the canal. I read twice - first I read the beginning of "Dreams" to show how I try to make things real if I start from an unreal idea (I slap on a lot of reality), and then I read "Definitions" to show how I try to cover my tracks if I start from something real. I said that unlike Alice Munro or Ali Smith I tend not to re-use raw material, so I need to keep seeking new ingredients. It's the first time I've read prose to an audience. I think I improved as the evening progressed.

I met Joel Lane after a gap of decades. He's written several books, both poetry and prose. I suggested during my reading that though some writers of poetry and prose say that their poetry's more personal, in my case it's the other way round. I meant to ask him whether he agreed. I heard Dragan Todorovic's stories for the first time and look forward to reading his book.

A 4 hour round-trip but it was worth it. I walked off with a pile of my books. I'm going to be busy the next few days, sending them off. You can buy the book direct from Under Nine Arches

Friday 14 September 2012

Sending stories to the States: a beginner's guide

In the States there are many magazines that print stories, and many Creative Writing students/teachers trying to appear in them. UK authors might as well give it a go, but it can be hard knowing where to begin. If you've had a few stories published, you may as well aim high. Literary Markets suggests a magazine ranking. The Rankings will show you how magazines fared in recent Best American Short Stories anthologies, Pushcart etc.

Many magazines don't accept submissions during summer. Word limits tend to be longer than in the UK. Submission procedures vary. Here are the details for a few magazines that I like reading.

Thursday 13 September 2012

My most popular posts

Earlier I listed my least popular posts. Here are the most popular ones, the ones with at least 1000 hits

Tuesday 11 September 2012

The Bridport Prize

"The 2012 competition winners have now been notified"

Oh well. I thought I might have had a chance of being long-listed this time. I sent in 2 very different stories - one Realist, in sections, the other SF or psychological, depending on how it's read. I don't think I can write much better than that. I fear I might be grumpy when I read the winning stories.

So it's back to the singles bars. A new start. America maybe.

Saturday 8 September 2012

Free verse book festival

On Saturday 8th September I went down to London to "meet my publishers". HappenStance was doing a roaring trade thanks to Matthew Stewart's freshly imported Ibérico ham, free with each poetry purchase. His "Tasting Notes" was launched at the event. Like some other HappenStance publications, it will reach parts that other poems don't reach. Marion Tracy's pamphlet "The Giant in the Doorway" was launched too.

Nine Arches Press was upstairs (there was more room than last year). I gave up waiting for the stall to be clear of customers, so this photo's the best I could do. I got some books there. I also bought books by Peter Daniels (Mulfran) and Judy Brown (Seren), and "Adventures in Form" (Penned in the Margins). I would have liked to be in the latter. My forms are more difficult to execute than many in the book, but less experimental I suppose.

I'd intended to go to several readings. In the event I only attended the HappenStance session. Readings were in an atmospheric setting with a mirror as a backdrop. I made the most of the day (27 degrees) by popping to the Saatchi Gallery (a Chess display), Portobello Market, and Church Street Market

Wednesday 5 September 2012


I listened to some interesting talks about e-publishing yesterday. One speaker had found a publisher who acted much like a traditional publisher. Another had paid for a cover and for proofreading/formatting. A third had done it all himself.

I didn't realise that there's a support industry built around e-writing. If you want editing/graphical/translation services, you can put the task out for tender and get samples and references from free-lancers.

Marketing's a slog, but it's never easy. No one sounded keen about Twitter or even Facebook - not worth the time you need to invest. Fiction Press and Goodreads provided more efficient links. It was suggested that writing more books was the best form of marketing - books sell each other ("If you like this book, you might ...."). Repackage books. Find new markets abroad (France and Germany) or produce an Audio book.

The cover's especially important for online sales (it has to look good when shrunk). Even if you do it yourself, you may well have to pay for artwork.

Wednesday 29 August 2012


I spent 5 days in Edinburgh, going to 3 fringe comedy events (Impro, New faces, and one about computers). I also popped into the Edinburgh International Book Festival at Charlotte Square. Lots of big names and signing opportunities, though I didn't get involved with that. Instead went to the SpiegelTent to hear a 4pm story by Kirsty Logan and part of an evening that started at 9pm, compered well by Sian Bevan.

Mostly I'll remember the buzz of the city and the experience of staying in a tenement block. I wrote a poem, a story, and I read Best British Short Stories 2012 as well as Sarah Hall's "A Beautiful Indifference". I liked both of the books. I found my pamphlet in Shelter's bookshop, Stockbridge. A pound. Hard to tell whether it was much-thumbed or whether it had been stamped-upon a few times, so I didn't buy it.

We also visited Loch Lomond (non-stop rain; our wipers packed up), Stirling, North Berwick (its harbour and Law), Berwick-upon-Tweed and Hadrian's Wall (Housesteads).

Thursday 16 August 2012

Blog stats: 2008-2012

Here are my blog stats from May 2008 to mid-August 2012, scaled so that the top of the graph is 5000 hits/month. I think they're all on the rise, some more gradually than others.


Tuesday 14 August 2012

Cambridge literary locations

Many writers have lived in Cambridge, sometimes when they were students. Some just visit ("Cambridge made me very black and down. I cannot bear its smell of rottenness" DH Lawrence). It's not easy determining the exact addresses where they stayed. Here's a list of some.

  • Rupert Brooke - The Orchard, Grantchester
  • Dickens - stayed at the Eagle
  • EM Forster - staircase A, King's
  • Gide - Byron's Lodge, Grantchester
  • Thom Gunn - Whewell's Court
  • Hughes+Plath - 55 Eltisley Avenue
  • Henry James - 8 Trumpington St
  • Marlowe - staircase P, Corpus Christi
  • Milton - staircase M3, Christs
  • Nabokov - 2 Trinity Lane
  • Pepys - stayed at the Falcon Inn, Petty Cury
  • Plath - Whitstead Hostel, Barton Rd
  • Tennyson - 57 Corpus Buildings, Trumpington St and 12 Rose Crescent
  • Dylan Thomas - stayed a night at 274a Mill Rd
  • Wordsworth - staircase F, St Johns

If Shakespeare performed in Cambridge when his company visited, it would have been at The Eagle

The information's from - the web, "Literary Cambridge" by Lisa Sargood (Sutton Publishing, 2004), and "A literary history of Cambridge" by Graham Chainey (Pevensey Press, 1985)

Saturday 4 August 2012

Useful stories and poems

I've been reading "Formative Fictions: Imaginative Literature and the Training of the Capacities", Joshua Landy, Poetics Today 32:4, Winter 2011.

In the abstract it says "While it is often assumed that fictions must be informative or morally improving in order to be of any real benefit to us, certain texts defy this assumption by functioning as training grounds for the capacities", p.175. He begins by suggesting that literary texts have 3 main functions

  • exemplary - (provides characters as role-models) - e.g. Racine
  • affective - (moving, or at least entertaining) - e.g. Shelley
  • cognitive - (provides - or helps reveal - knowledge about the world, a sub-culture, the writer or the reader)

He then suggests that some texts improve our skills - particularly, but not exclusively, our reading skills. Formative texts "present themselves as spiritual exercises (whether sacred or profane), spaces for prolonged and active encounters which serve, over time, to hone our abilities and thus, in the help, to help us become who we are" (p.184). Examples are Stephane Mallarme's poetry, some Beckett, Madame Bovary, Brecht and parables. He quotes Mark 4:11-12 to suggest that the Bible's parables are formative texts, and aren't supposed to be easy - "for those outside [i.e. non-disciples] everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand".

He writes that "Training ... takes place in only a relative handful of texts" (p.204). "Even if they are relatively rare, then, and even if their readers do not always take advantage of them, formative fictions may nonetheless be the most important fictions there are" (p.205). They "are texts that tend to be reread, texts indeed that reward rereading" (p.200).

He adds that there are many hybrids, and that the improved reading skills may aid life-skills (see Zunshine's work) -

  • Austen, James, Woolf, etc "could be seen as granting us the opportunity to become better at handling social information, whether by keeping track of sources or by reconstructing nested beliefs", (p.195)
  • "Proust's convoluted sentences stretch the mind's capacity for keeping multiple hypotheses in play while imposing provisional order on a rich set of material", (p.195)

His "Formative texts" are texts that make readers work - they're difficult texts (though superficially they may seem easy), drawing attention to their artifice, or containing unresolvable paradoxes. For each type of objective (particularly cognitive objective) that a text may have, there are ways for the text to hinder the reader's attainment of that objective. I suspect that not all these ways to add difficulty result in "formative texts", but many do. Especially for literary texts, I'd have thought that hybrid texts are the norm. And what happens to heavily formative texts once the reader's learnt the lesson? If a future book teaches the lesson better, is the first book diminished?

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Diary dates - Free Verse, Warwick Words, and Cambridge Writers

  • Free Verse (a poetry bookfair with readings) will be held on Saturday, 8th September at the Candid Arts Trust galleries in London, near Angel tube station. I'll be helping with the HappenStance stall.
  • As part of the Warwick Words festival Nine Arches Press are putting on a 'Short Story salon' at 9pm, Sunday, 7th October, at the Grand Union in Leamington Spa. My "By All Means" story pamphlet will be launched there.
  • I'll be running a workshop called "From Word To Flash" at 7.30pm, Tuesday, 6th November in Cambridge, organised by Cambridge Writers

Thursday 19 July 2012

Hypochondria and Writers

Years ago at a workshop I went to, Jo Shapcott said that she thought poets were prone to hypochondria and didn't like driving. These observations made sense to me at the time, connecting up. A few little, random symptoms might ingeniously be connected by a writer's imagination. Some little object seen out of the corner of one's eye while driving might make one's concentration drift while approaching red lights. In "The Information" Martin Amis writes "Poets don't drive. Never trust a poet who can drive. Never trust a poet at the wheel. If he can drive, distrust the poems ...".

But it's not all bad news. In "Tormented Hope" Brian Dillon suggests a link between "health anxiety" and creativity, pointing out that the illness can be used as an excuse to get a bit of piece and quiet. Charlotte Brontë and Proust were worriers. Fear can be a spur. Someone I know is thinking of using his worries to make him send some of his work off "before it's too late". I think Antony Burgess started frenzied writing when he death-threatened himself.

Wednesday 11 July 2012

My competition results, 2012

My competition results so far in 2012 are

  • Cambridge Writers Story competition - unplaced (not in top 10. 27 entries)
  • H.E. Bates Story competition - unplaced
  • Commonwealth Story competition - unplaced
  • Bristol Story competition - unplaced (not in top 80)
  • Grace Dieu Story competition - unplaced (not in top 12)
  • Frome Story competition - unplaced (not in top 60)
  • Nottingham Story competition - unplaced
  • Exeter Story competition - unplaced
  • Poetry Business poetry pamphlet competition - unplaced
  • Flarestack poetry pamphlet competition - unplaced
  • Vers Poets Competition - unplaced (not in top 40)

Still more than 5 months to go ...

It's October. I'll retrofit more news -

  • Bridport Story competition - unplaced
  • Yeovil Story competition - unplaced
  • Wreckin Story competition - unplaced (not in top 16. About 200 entries)

Saturday 7 July 2012

Trains of thought

Like many other writers, I find trains useful. They feature in 5 of the next 8 stories of mine to be published. There's the departure - leaving the old life behind - and the arrival - a new start - but the mode of transport has useful features too - a combination of constraint (tracks and timetables) and freedom; of aloneness and being in a crowd.

Journeys are traditionally quests, but train journeys can be outside space and time. One of AL Kennedy's characters says "You can relax here - this isn't anywhere. What ever happens outside, there's nothing we can do about it right now". Kaye Mitchell says that for Kennedy's character trains are "free of the expectations and judgements of others, a space in which to meditate freely on the past and her possible future".

Of course, there are many books and essays on the use of trains in literature and film. Two places to start are Why poets take trains from the Guardian, and Trains in Literature

Friday 22 June 2012

My most unpopular articles

Beats me why some of my articles have been read 1000s of times whereas others might only have been read by me and bots, if that. I make no great claims for the pieces listed below, only that they're surely not a 1000 times worse than my most popular attempts. Are they?

Sunday 17 June 2012

Entry-level poetry and originality

I've been reading some newbie poetry recently and have been wondering what to say to the poets. Let's keep it simple and suppose that a good poem should (1) "have something to say", and (2) "say it well". But that's not enough (for the same reason that a science student deriving "E=mc squared" without help isn't enough). If it's already been done no one will be interested, though it may be an important, impressive developmental milestone for the writer. So for work that's going to be shared there's another requirement - (3) "it hasn't been said that way before". Novice poems often lack all three of these features. Such poems are easy to identify. Difficulties arise when some of the features are successfully implemented. In the table below I suggest what pieces that lack one or two of these features might be like.

The FeatureIf it's the only feature lacking?If it's the only feature?
Something to sayStylish, original but ultimately vacuousConfessional, documentary
A good way to say itThe poet has ideas but expresses them in a confusing or bland way, though the result's original enoughAn exercise in style
Not been said that way beforea "workshop" poem?Novelty for novelty's sake

The poems described in the 2nd column lack only one feature, and should be better than those in the 3rd column, and easier to fix. But sometimes the feature that the poems in the final column focus on is so good that it's worth many a poem in the 2nd column. Some life event or desire to be different is what might have inspired the poet to write in the first place.

Which faults are most easy to remedy? Which are the most egregious? Some poetry think that having "something to say" is crucial; the only reason for writing poetry. Auden liked young poets to have technical skill and an interest in wordplay, having "a good way to say it". Time and travel can provide subject matter later. The feature in the final row is often underestimated. Of course, new poets may have read so little poetry that they can't assess originality, or assess how the poetry community will view the work (they may have no notion of a living "poetry community"). Some people don't bother about this factor until they've completed the poem. And works in this category may be excellent in themselves, important milestones in the writer's development, so poets, for a while at least, shouldn't been discouraged from producing such work. People like Derek Walcott think that poets might well be derivative during their apprenticeship.

But avoidance of derivative writing is part of my writing process, not an afterthought. When I feel the urge to write about bruised light I think again. My approach can be stultifying, and it's probably not a good idea for first drafts. The anxiety of influence shouldn't affect each phrase I write. And who's to judge whether the work is too much like what's gone before? Development often proceeds by minor variations and incremental improvements.

So I think the "originality" factor is the one that poets are most likely to re-evaluate as they develop. I don't think new poets should do what I do. Initially they shouldn't worry too much about originality (besides, they're not equipped to assess it). They might benefit from being shown similar poems. Later they may incorporate avoidance of copying into their thought processes (or call it intertextuality)

Monday 4 June 2012

Two poetry primers

I found I agreed with much in "La poesia salva la vita" by Donatella Bisutti. It avoids theoretical language (but not difficult poems) and asks basic (or if you prefer, fundamental) questions. It quotes extensively from a wide range of poets (Achmatova, Blok, Bly, Campana, Caproni, Kavafis, Lear, Liu, O'Hara, Queneau, Silkin, Vernon Watkins, etc). The title ("Poetry saves lives") sounds over-the-top but the book suggests that it's anecdotally true for a particular concentration camper. A pervasive theme is that words are both transparent meaning-carriers and objects/noises whose properties also carry meaning.

  • Rhythms derive from our movements, dance, and breath. On p.160-161 there are graphs showing the rhythms of an Ungaretti poem.
  • Shape and sound contribute to meaning. Onomatopeioa extends beyond words like "farfalla" (Italian for butterfly). On p.137 there are counts of the frequency of vowels and consonants in some poetry by Pavese.

Key ideas are printed in boxes. Here are some quotes (my translations)

  • the meaning of a poem is in reality a fine net of meanings that interact beneath the surface and it's really this interacting that makes us say it's beautiful, p.89
  • when there seems to be no metaphor, we've seen that the whole poem becomes a metaphor, p.96
  • everything that repeats itself with minor differences, by a curious psychological mechanism, pleases us, p.99
  • modern poetry makes much use of polysemy to multiply and also hide meanings, p.146
  • Of such obscurity this book wants to provide at least one key: abandon oneself, like children, to suggestion, to echoes, to the circles that radiate from the words, p.147
  • poetry fails to capture reality, p.227

"Fundamentals of the Art of Poetry" by Oscar Mandel (Sheffield Academic Press, 1998) also has many examples but few surprizes or insights. It's less fundamental than the other book. The nearest Mandel get to being controversial is to suggest that Keats' "The poetry of earth is ceasing never" is "a dismal failure" (p.205) and that prose poems don't exist - he's happy for poetry to be devoid of rhyme, meter, metaphor, etc, but they must have line-breaks. Here are a few quotes

  • Poetry is the branch of Literature whose words and related signs are preponderantly delivered (when written down or printed) in premeditated limited quanta, p.80
  • A prose poem is like a well-dressed nude, a square circle, or a 41-line sonnet, p.86
  • when we study the poetic history of any given nation, we quickly discover that there are years, and even decades, of poetic productivity from which nothing is prized any longer, p.191

Wednesday 30 May 2012

A.L. Kennedy

I've read quite a lot of A.L.Kennedy's work over the years. I found "Day" difficult initially. Now I think it might be her best book but the other ones are always interesting. I prefer the short stories that she wrote in the 1990s to the earlier and later ones. As reading experiences her books sometimes disappoint me because too often the characters (perhaps because of shared pre-occupations or states of mind) sound much like each other. Perhaps material that used to enliven her stories now goes elsewhere, leaving her stories more monotone.

It's easy to find material by and about her. Her output includes short stories, novels, film criticism, cultural commentary, stage play, radio drama, film screenplay, newspaper journalism, radio and TV discussion programmes, and she's contributed to dance productions and TV drama documentaries. Her Guardian blog has interesting material, and her comments on reviews are fun. On YouTube you can find her doing stand-up

Kaye Mitchell's book will give you an overview. In it you'll find lists of Kennedy's recurring themes and this interesting quote on p.123 "I believe in God, I believe in love - they probably make very little sense without meaning much the same thing".

Here's a list of my notes

Monday 28 May 2012

Litrefs Quotes

I've put my list of 1277 literary quotes into blogger at Litrefs Quotes. Feel free to use them for articles, essays, etc.

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Writing and psychological distance

  • "Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot" - Chaplin et al
  • "a poet even as falling down the stairs, will observe his fall" - Holub
  • "The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity" - Wittgenstein.
  • "you must hide profundity. Where? On the surface" - Hofmannsthal

Some people have little resistance to changing their psychological distance from events. As a result they may be accused of adopting "inappropriate" positions or performing disruptive switches of perspective. They may be viewed as detached, prying, over-analytical or over-familiar, of taking things out of context, of not seeing the wood for the trees, or vice versa. The results may be amusing (the "Pull-Back-And-Reveal Gag"), anti-social or (because it's non-standard, non-linear) considered artistic - zooming in on alliteration, a grain of sand or brushstrokes, then pulling back for the big picture, seeing ourselves as others see us; watching a tear trickle down your lover's face, psychologically withdrawing but not turning away; a penchant for synecdoches.

The easy passage between extremes of scale may also lead to a lack of appreciation of the distance that the psychologically astigmatic might feel between them. Agile zoomers might see the surface as little more "obvious" than the depths. Making poorly hidden secrets or assumptions explicit may be stating the obvious to some, but to others it may come as a shock. Bringing the cosmic into the everyday may cause eyeballs to roll.

I think people with the gift might be drawn to Poetry, seeing it as a legitimizing vehicle for their natural tendencies (though perhaps Art might suit them better). The person's instinctive zooming movements may be adroit in the eyes of the audience, or they may appear medically symptomatic, disorganised. Controlling this gift is what transforms the juxtaposed, multiple viewpoints into art or comedy. The person may need to rewrite (re-order and re-integrate the source material) before it "works" for others.

Is this gift of rapid perspective-changing useful for writers? I think it helps when gathering material - they can happily dive into new experiences knowing that they can make a rapid psychological retreat if necessary. I think awareness and orchestration of the multiple perspectives is useful for writers of many persuasions - not just stream-of-consciousness writers. The speed isn't necessary, though it may assist the integration of the different perspectives.

Friday 4 May 2012

Conformity and success - some poetry articles

Jon Stone's Pluralism versus Selectivity considers some pros and cons of ecumenical anthologies. Todd Swift wrote of "Identity Parade" that "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" and David Kennedy wrote that "anthologies with a relatively small number of poets tend to reflect exhaustion, a coming conservatism, or a combination of both".

Marjorie Perloff's Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric looks at how "The demand for a certain kind of prize-winning, ‘well-crafted’ poem has produced extraordinary uniformity", how new names replace old names, though the poetry's the same. "the lack of consensus about the poetry of the postwar decades has led not, as one might have hoped, to a cheerful pluralism animated by noisy critical debate about the nature of lyric, but to the curious closure exemplified by the Dove anthology"

She adds that "the poems you will read in American Poetry Review or similar publications will, with rare exceptions, exhibit the following characteristics: 1) irregular lines of free verse, with little or no emphasis on the construction of the line itself ...; 2) prose syntax with lots of prepositional and parenthetical phrases, laced with graphic imagery or even extravagant metaphor ...; 3) the expression of a profound thought or small epiphany"

Peter Riley's Poetry Prize Culture and the Aberdeen Angus also identifies a formula for success - "the first-person singular is very prominent as mediator between the poem’s material and the reader. ... the poetry is basically subjective and the process at work is, typically, one of internalisation ... an insistent metaphorism, sometimes remote but generally clever or arty ... initial obliquity, teasing the reader with an almost riddle-like opening which is later solved ... the avoidance of idiolect or dialect, as too of disrupted syntax, neologisms, references beyond the cultural sphere, and avoidance indeed of any serious degree of abstract thought ... heavy end-rhyming, argumentation, or flashy displays of street-wise contemporaneity"

Sunday 22 April 2012

Oulipo - my contributions

  • Russian Doll (published in Aesthetica). This is in the "Russian Doll" form - to get the continuation of the piece, take the first letter of each word. Continue this process, taking the first letter of the continuation's words, and so on until only one word is left - the final word is 'inside'.
  • Met a Star's Eyes/Metastasize (published today in "The Journal of Microliterature"). This is a long homonyn (if the sound isn't the same, the spelling is)

Both are feasibility studies, potential works.

Thursday 12 April 2012

Medical Humanities?

Medicine and Literature cross paths in several ways. There's

  • Poetry on the Brain - Helen Mort's Neuroscience-inspired approach
  • Your Brain on Fiction - a New York Times article about brain scans and novels. "when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors like 'The singer had a velvet voice' ... roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like 'The singer had a pleasing voice' ... did not". "individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective"
  • Psychology, psychiatry and writers, which is more to do with mental health

I didn't realise there was a discipline called "Medical Humanities". According to the wikipedia entry, "The humanities and arts provide insight into the human condition, suffering, personhood, our responsibility to each other, and offer a historical perspective on medical practice. Attention to literature and the arts helps to develop and nurture skills of observation, analysis, empathy, and self-reflection - skills that are essential for humane medical care."

It sounds like an excuse to watch "Gray's Anatomy" rather than go to lectures. To give you a flavour of the more academic approach, here's the start of the abstract of "Illness narratives: reliability, authenticity and the empathic witness" from Med Humanities 2011;37 - "Several scholarly trends, such as narrative medicine, patient-centered and relationship-centered care, have long advocated for the value of the patient's voice in the practice of medicine. As theories of textual analysis are applied to the understanding of stories of illness, doctors and scholars have the opportunity to develop more nuanced and multifaceted appreciation for these accounts. We realize, for example, that a patient's story is rarely 'just a story,' but is rather the conscious and unconscious representation and performance of intricate personal motives and dominant meta-narrative influences."

There's also Hektoen International (a journal about medical humanities). Literature, Arts and Medicine Blog looks interesting too.

Tuesday 10 April 2012

Two articles about the state of literature and publishing

From a newspaper description of a program tonight: "A 31-year-old amateur poet from Bournemouth discusses his difficulties dating". The word "amateur" reveals the difference between the public perception of literary writers and the harsh reality. Here are 2 recent reality-articles that are well worth a read -

  • Poetry and Tribalism - Jon Stone's examination of poetry factions. He finishes by writing "Our collective responsibility, I think, is to change the mainstream without destroying it - or worse, replacing it with something similarly flawed."
  • The real story: publishing, four and a half years on - Sharon Blackie, of Two Ravens Press, writes about sales, marketing, blogs, reviews, money and motivation - "Even though our sales through Amazon, for example, go out at the highest discounts we ever give, we love them. Because they represent firm sales, and they never come back again." ... "We’ve had e-books for a couple of years now, sold through our website and also fully distributed through a major wholesaler, and our bestselling e-book has sold about ten copies."

Monday 2 April 2012

Interview with Joel Lane

I've posted an interview with Joel Lane, poet and story/novel writer. Our paths have crossed in many magazines.

Sunday 25 March 2012

"Moving Parts": reviewing the reviews

Thanks to Helena's efforts I've had 10 reviews in 10 months - "Acumen", "Envoi", "New Walk", "Other Poetry", "Under the Radar", "Weyfarers", "Bow-wow Shop" and 3 in "Sphinx". I'm grateful to all the reviewers - it couldn't have been easy. Time for a summary.

Poems mentioned

Some poets moan that reviewers ignore their books. I'm not going to moan that 4 of the 28 poems weren't mentioned, though it's interesting to note that amongst those 4 are a poem from Stand and a minor prize-winner. "Escape" received the most attention - it's pivotal according to one reviewer. It has the most-quoted lines too - "I magnify the moment, hold an uncorked bottle to my mouth two-handout like a clarinet and play the blues."

Like many first collections, the poems were written over many years. I initially sent in about 60 poems. I find it hard enough to compare my poems with each other let alone with those of other poets, so I mostly submitted published work. Helena made an initial selection and we negotiated from there. Most of my more recent pieces lost out in the process. My worries were that the collection would have too much variety and that it would be unrepresentative, leaning towards poems like "Touch". In fact, there are more than enough challenges for the target audience. Inclusion of poems like "Touch" means that readers might give me the benefit of the doubt when the going gets tough.

What I've learnt

  • That reviews don't worry much about acknowledgements and prizewinners
  • Reviews help sales though they might not cover costs - at least 2 buyers said they bought because of particular reviews
  • Christopher J.P. Smith attempted a tri-partite classification that I wouldn't argue with.
  • A few people see difficulty, or can't find what a poem's "about", which is no surprise. More surprising is that some of these people in other reviews have appreciated non-representational pieces. It doesn't help that some poems are simple whereas others are deceptively simple. As readers go from one poems to the next they may need to change the aesthetic framework. Worse still, they need to change from line to line. It's more like reading Don Paterson than, say, Pascal Petit. I think "Misreading the Signs" is typical from its title to its punch-line - by drawing attention to sign/signified issues it breaks the mimetic spell - the sign saying it's not quarter past six really being a "don't turn right" sign. It's person-centred but wanders into abstract/essay territory using juxtaposition.
  • One particular kind of difficulty often mentioned is the "puzzle". Jim Murdoch has written about this, and I don't disagree with anything he says. I could have made some things easier without losing artistic integrity. People sense that they're missing something or that something needs assembling. Yes, I sometimes use juxtaposition, and no, I don't include instructions or a picture on the box. I think I'm a hard-edge (rather than soft-edge) writer - as with Pound's "Metro" poem or Magritte's surrealism, the objects aren't fuzzy or obscured. It may be this that makes readers assume that the rest of the poem is equally clear. More than one person said that "Giraffe" was difficult. To me it's just a "Martian Poetry" metaphor-fest.
  • Nobody's suggested that there should be notes. I've not (unlike Kona MacPhee) written about all of the pieces online, but there are some notes

Possible Puffs

  • "A very satisfying collection"
  • "A fine intelligent collection"
  • "remarkable for their freight of experience, assured grasp of line, and a poetic sensibility as confident as it is unusual"
  • "unmistakeable authority of experience"
  • "precision and tactile immediacy"
  • "a wonderful ear"
  • "an intense and rewarding read"
  • "he writes exceptionally well about children"
  • "What’s most winning, for me, is his really human touch"
  • "The strength of the personae in the pamphlet is the thing that attracts attention"
  • "Tim Love is probably a magician"
  • "The language is deceptively plain but is deftly spiced with originality"
  • "skilled metre is matched by a deep understanding of the measured world"

The Reviews

  • Among high spots in Moving Parts by Tim Love are 'Therapy' (Look for a sign ... / Memorise it. Look away. If the sign's changed when you look back / you're dreaming) and a painfully moving poem in which a young hospital visitor brings his favorite toy car so you could brrmbrrm it along the sheets and get better
    (Michael Bartholomew-Biggs, Other Poetry IV.4)
  • Starting Tim Love's Moving Parts came as a revelation. The wonderful first poem 'Love at first sight' at first put me off the scent about what I was really reading - about meeting a newborn in an incubator. The language is deceptively plain but is deftly spiced with originality:
    When you reach together into her world
    there's no alarm, because in that first hour
    there's a glimpse of what's to come
    So far so good - a not-too-difficult start to the collection but I was already hooked and knew I'd be on a roller-coaster ride. The pamphlet's title led me to expect a mechanical, Heath-Robinson-type contraption but, after a time, I couldn't discern the connections. I kept thinking "Try harder" because, at the same time, I was wanting to unravel each of the mystery parcels. Each poem gave me this sense that I was inside a puzzle and it was an experience that, on the whole, I much enjoyed, for most of the poems rewarded the work I put into them.
    And, sometimes, I did have to work quite hard and, in several poems, I was not successful as in 'Giraffe', which baffled me. I think this poet knows a lot of things I don't know, scientific and philosophical things about particles and for a start he's trying to make sense of his very complex world, a world that is much more complex than I could ever grasp. You have to believe these poems.
    In 'Escape' where the tables are turned on the man trying to enjoy 'a last minute from snow's routine'; and who ends up feeling like the outsider, stared at through the gate by a legless man, sleeping under the flashback of the moon
    They've proved that lab rats dream of their mazes.
    I dream of a brass doorknob whose dimple
    my thumb always finds.
    Astonishing images like that mean that we don't have to know what it's about to get it. The poem ends with:
    I magnify the moment,
    hold an uncorked bottle to my mouth
    two-handout like a clarinet and play the blues.
    'The fall' is one of those poems I almost understand but won't forget, for its elegant phrasing and incisive imagery:
    because all languages have the same 
    word for olive, they grow on the hillside
    where language first grew
    Having said that, some lines fall short because, for me, they are simply too much like clever puns - 'because you didn't burn your bridges'. But I am really rather hesitant to mention what I didn't like because I think Tim Love is probably a magician, especially when he writes that Odysseus's children have 'eyes the colour of their footprints.' And 'In the soul's darkroom' which I'll quote as a whole:
    Stare and slowly pale visions will appear,
    bathed in red, their darkness soon deepening.
    There's no going back. Words hold beauty still
    only for that moment before the lies -
    as water-lily buds ache inches clear
    of fixing fluids before opening,
    resting back on the loving surface still
    bright and reflective even when it dries.
    I felt that my understanding of these poems was also like a photograph being slowly developed in my mind's darkroom.
    (Envoi, Rebecca Gethin)
  • 'She has no imagination', Tim Love writes in 'Giraffe'. 'When she wakes, the lions are for real'. This is Love at his best in Moving Parts: understated yet imaginative; fanciful yet intelligible; sincere but not sentimental; cerebral but not pretentious. With child-like wonder, Love notes the giraffe's 'brown birthmarks big as dinner-plates'. While 'Giraffe'. finds its impetus in the exotic, poems such as 'Forever' owe their force to a charged rendering of the quotidian:
    A cathedral's beauty
    is the shared silence,
    not the stone - 
    whether the fireworks
    are over, or whether
    it's just a pause -
    As one would expect, Moving Parts contains the inevitable missteps: the preciousness of lines like 'the reeds / all sway together like memories of first love' (from 'How we make love'); the bizarre intersection of Custer and a Dylanoid (Highwa 61-like) mania in 'Fossil expedition'; and the shallow wit (read: poop jokes) of "'Poetry is the deification of reality' - Edith Sitwell". One gets the sense that the lighter poems in this collection are meant simply as breathing room between the more substantive ones.
    At its most powerful, Moving Parts gives us gnomic, often short pieces tinged with a sense of the inadequacy of knowledge, the ubiquity of loss, and the nagging intimation that we are forever ruled by both. Take 'Crows' nests', perhaps the pamphlet's most accomplished piece:
    Autumn's X-ray reveals them,
    the trees suddenly old,
    the crows gone, spreading.
    Now you want to hide away there,
    sleepness nights alone waiting
    for the first sight of land,
    the darkness flapping,
    so close to you, so huge.
    If Love's collection seems forgivably uneven, ...
    (New Walk 3, Nicholas Friedman)
  • A very satisfying collection is tucked into the pamphlet-sized MOVING PARTS by Tim Love. The poetry is elusive, subtle and rewards several readings. The artist gives an angle on gaining evidence from witnesses for an ID photo. 'We begin with the eyes - the hardest part for me:/ we'll correct them later but she says / that faces grow from the eyes.' Quietly, disturbingly the poem goes on to say 'They're under pressure to make an arrest. The deadline's / soon, so though she's hardly conscious / I have to hurry her ...' The conversational tone runs with fine music, sharp dialogue, character depiction and imagery: ' ... A constable pop his head in, taps his watch. They like my work, / want me to go full time, give up my sunsets ...' The instability of scientific information and its relation to ordinary life appears in Action at a distance: ... The love poem, Sunday in the Egyptian Gallery has a strange, ethereal sense, like a shifting cinematic image: ... A fine intelligent collection.
    (Weyfarers 110, Stella Stocker)
  • Moving Parts, which appears to be Love's first collection, shows that (relatively) late publication can be a good friend to a poet. Tim Love's poems are remarkable for their freight of experience, assured grasp of line, and a poetic sensibility as confident as it is unusual. His originality shines through in 'Giraffe', whose subject is by turns 'failed model', yacht, and in a lurching turn, 'oh god, I've left my handbag'. But Love's vision is both respectful and exact, noting the giraffe's 'birthmark birthmarks'. The originality of the eye provides the final surprise in his poem 'Iron Birds':
    how their vapour trails are like the broadening,
    fading scratches on your lover's back
    Sex is one of the liveliest threads in this book, often arriving - like a friend, unannounced - at the end of poems, discreet but unmistakeable.
    The unmistakeable authority of experience can be heard in Love's account of a visit to dying relative with his son, 'Taking Mark this time'. (he writes exceptionally well about children, with clarity, without sentiment: 'You still look just the same to him in this strange bed'.) Sadly unusual in poetry, Love's scientific and technical knowledge pervade his poems, but, like a good friend, never dominate or domineer. Their rewards are lines whose skilled metre is matched by a deep understanding of the measured world: 'all falls obey the same laws of motion'.
    Yet the poem later confides: ' There is still so much we do not know.' Love is skilled at sketching landscapes, but their final details are often unsettled. 'All over the city. alarms are sounding.' Straightforward facts followed by the irrational and elusive, prose, then poetry: 'I shake the sugar sachet before tearing it./Sometimes feeling precedes a reason'.
    Love's ear is equally acute for words and raw sound. In 'The fall', a fascinating poem about change in language, he notes that a fire engine now 'goes wow wow wow' instead of 'hee-haw'. He will, successfully, risk a desperate lyricism: 'death [...] sweeps your petals into heaps.' Boldly and bleakly, he will mention beauty 'only for that moment before the lies'. But his words enter into poetry's intense conversation:' What have you forgotten?' Their ending open, briefly as flowers: 'play the blues', 'It's not too late.' Do poems speak when friends fall silent?
    Before silence, the pamphlet's last poem, 'Crows' nests', takes a remarkable turn, The nests, revealed, typically. for Love, by 'Autumn's X-ray', become masts, viewpoints
    for the first sight of land,
    the darkness flapping,
    so close to you, so huge.
    The function of intelligence, in poetry, is to move beyond itself. Tim Love's poems achieve this, beautifully. 'My cleverness runs out', he writes. In the darkness beyond is loss regain, the potent, overwhelming words of a child.
    (Alison Brackenbury, Under the Radar 8, July 2011)
  • The short blurb tells you something vital about the pamphlet: 'His poems challenge perception. Sometimes they aren't what they seem, but then again, they are. They offer themselves like canvasses in a gallery, the white box of the page inviting the reader in. The process is playful and serious and, like all good art, demands no less than absolute attention.' Despite the somewhat Derrida-in-English-translation overtones of this (horresco referens), I almost know what he is suggesting, amongst the plurality of reading, the inevitable slipperiness of language, the Glas-like ambiences, back to the 'white box' of the page: ... ('How we make love') This is one type of poem in the pamphlet. It is a challenging style. Another type demonstrates the precision and tactile immediacy of the poetry: ... ('Escape') The strength of the personae in the pamphlet is the thing that attracts attention, in poems such as 'The Artist', 'Eclipse', 'Odysseus', 'Action at a Distance' and others. I especially enjoyed the somewhat Deconstructively-voiced, Brief Encounter-ish 'Paradox' ... (Acumen 70, Christopher J.P. Smith)
  • In ‘How we make love’, the narrative voice tells us:
         The way synapses alter when we learn
         is adapted from the healing process
         as if our ignorance were once a wound.
         There is still so much we do not know.
    And my ignorance of how to fully embrace the more abstract elements of this collection soon began to feel like a wound—a slight deafness or flaw of vision that hindered me from fully engaging with what was being said. Often, I felt as if I was visiting these poems in an American, high security penitentiary. I pressed my fingers on the bullet proof glass and tried to have a conversation . . . but the glass was always there.
    When friends take me to an exhibition of abstract paintings, I stand in front of each one whispering to myself, Don’t look for narrative. Don’t look for narrative, hoping that eventually I will see something I recognise. In Tim Love’s ‘Escape’ I recognised the chaos of Cairo airport where, “more lost air luggage ends up than anywhere else” and I could see myself “shake the sugar sachet before tearing it”. I know the ’”phantom-limbed sadness” and the sky at 3am. Long after I had closed this pamphlet I could hear the music made as the speaker in ‘Escape’ concludes,
         I magnify the moment,
         hold an uncorked bottle to my mouth
         two-handed like a clarinet and play the blues.
    I have no idea what the “moon-flavoured sweets” mentioned in ‘Estuary’ taste like but I’ve had great fun imagining. And I have no idea how, in ‘The Fall’, I can be in London and New York on the same autumn day
         . . . and because it’s autumn, London leaves fall
         yellow as cabs.
    But I recognise that kind of dichotomy from having seen it before, for example in stanza XIII of Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘Thirteen Ways to look at a Blackbird’:
         It was evening all afternoon
         It was snowing 
         And it was going to snow.
    And I seem to remember reading somewhere that subatomic particles can be in more than one place at once so maybe readers of poetry can be as well. Again I’ve had huge fun imagining what that might be like.
    Seeing Custer’s name in ‘Fossil expedition’, made me think I knew what to expect. More fool me. Tim Love is skilled in defying and subverting expectations:
         ‘Gotta show the three wise men the way,’ Custer said,
         winking to his lieutenant as he left the fort.
         The scholars were sweating in the morning sun.
    They ride silently through the Badlands then the three men dig for hours. At the end of a long day:
         ‘Nice suit you got there, sir,’ said Custer.
         And all the way back he could hear bones rattling in their saddlebags.
    To my frustration, I can hear things rattling throughout this pamphlet that I can’t fully understand or grasp firmly enough to fully appreciate. I’ve hammered and hammered on the glass but I just can’t open up a crack.
    In ‘Windmills’ Tim love tells us, "Quixote had no chance." And we all know the flaw was not with the windmills but with the Don. Sadly, if this pamphlet is a windmill, I am the Don.
    (Sue Butler, Sphinx)
  • Tim Love is a writer who grew on me. His collection is held together by its title: Moving Parts is, I think, absolutely apposite. It captures brilliantly the predominant flavour: a melding of science, and heart—to cope, really, with what it is to be human, "the darkness flapping/ so close to you, so huge".
    Love has a wonderful ear. To read him is a pleasure. His words fit together, sentences flow, themselves like a well-oiled machine. And time and again he touchingly pulls together that vast ‘flapping’ system, with the human, personal. He links things. So, in ‘Windmills’, he writes:
         and in Soham on the Fens, I bought a bag of flour
         only hours old, ground by the wind that made
         my cycling here so tiring.
    What’s most winning, for me, is his really human touch. This builds. I wasn’t so convinced in early poems like ‘Iron birds’ and ‘Giraffe’, lessened for me by an almost macho note. But I was won over by the end. Take ‘The King’, with its one super long sentence flowing from verse to verse. At its core, for me, sings the single line: "he can’t bear to throw away her see-thru shoes".
    Some of Love’s more ‘obvious’ poems are, arguably, his less successful. ‘The artist’, for instance, for me, tries too hard. Similarly - although, of course, it’s touching - ‘Taking Mark this time’ could seem a little obvious for Love at his very best. (That said, this poem’s most abiding image for me—of the young boy’s "doll eyes/ briefly opening", as the poet carries him to bed—has firmly stayed.) Equally, one or two poems were so abstract I couldn’t wring much meaning from them: ‘He understands but he doesn’t love’, for instance. On the whole, though, it’s the way he balances abstract and concrete that works so brilliantly.
    The, for me, pivotal ‘Escape’ starts off slightly unpromisingly with a potentially rather clichéd contrast between the luxury of a "last minute break" in a gated haven, and a legless beggar glimpsed outside the enclosure. Love goes on to make this notion entirely his own. Somehow it’s his isolation we feel, sealed in a world he can’t quite get the measure of - just like our own (where "Newton was quite wrong", but "got us to the moon", as he puts it elsewhere).
    In ‘Escape’ he writes: "I dream of a brass doorknob whose dimple/ my thumb always finds". This single image, for me, is the most memorable. What else, then, is there? "I magnify the moment," Love writes,
         hold an uncorked bottle to my mouth
         two-handed like a clarinet and play the blues.
    (Charlotte Gann, Sphinx)
  • The title of this collection naturally conjures up images of machinery, but what kind of machine exactly? Having read the 28 poems inside, I can’t help thinking of one of those enormous Heath Robinson-style contraptions, full of weird and wonderful parts, but whose ultimate purpose isn’t always clear.
    Many of the poems take the form of condensed thought experiments. ‘Paradox’ is a good example and short enough to quote in full:
         You haven’t left her, only she moves
         and when she has stopped moving
         it’s as if you left each other
         and it all makes sense on paper
         until the platform moves
         and you are not moving.
    Most readers will pick up the allusion to relativity and the idea that a person in motion experiences time differently to one standing still. The poem draws a nice parallel between that scientific abstraction and the emotional reality of waving someone off on a train platform. There’s also the suggestion of a more permanent separation, with the speaker unwilling to accept its reality, but equally unable to deny it.
    The poem doesn’t seek to resolve or explain the paradox of the title, but it successfully transports us ‘into’ the problem. I felt an almost physical sense of disorientation when I got to the closing line. The poem keeps repeating the idea of motion in the words ‘move’ and ‘moving’, but suddenly leaves you standing stock still. It’s very effectively done.
    ‘Paradox’ is typical of the collection in the way it mixes the abstract and the particular, the philosophical and the personal. ‘Forever’ is another example, beginning "A cathedral’s beauty/ is the shared silence", but ending somewhere else entirely:
         sunlight’s momentum
         dragging colour from stained glass
         onto marble; years of believers
         wading through, smoothing tombs;
         how you wake me
         to finish what I thought
         we’d finished the night before.
    Elsewhere, we encounter musings about whether strawberries would taste the same if they were blue, and whether the light in the fridge really goes out when you close it. It makes for an intense and rewarding read, where each poem gradually reveals more of itself the harder you look.
    That said, my nagging feeling was that some of the poems remain a little blurry no matter how hard you look. The poet’s mind is so lively and lateral that it’s hard to stay on one train of thought long enough to get anywhere. But even as I write that, I’m reminded of the train paradox above and the warning that things only make sense until you realise they don’t. Maybe the poet knows what he’s doing after all.
    (Nick Asbury, Sphinx)
  • Tim Love's poems are experiences of the world, embodying the moment, the reality; poems that don't exactly go anywhere, but inhabit where they are, while leaping across gaps in a satisfying way: 'of course words aren't the world / but they take us where we want to be' ('Action at a distance' ). The poems themselves aren't at a great distance from the poet and the reader, but there is a detachment from the self as well as the observed scene.
    'Taking Mark this time' is about bringing a son to a dying grandparent, whose condition 'I decode /… /until my cleverness runs out'. Tim Love's is a cleverness that's clever enough to be aware of its limits, and is balanced by a lot of feeling. This includes enjoyment of things being both systematic and personally felt:
    I bought a bag of flour
    only hours old, ground by the wind that made
    my cycling there so tiring. ('Windmills')
    'The fall' puts the changes in the world into a pattern for timescale and perspective, with the rate of mutation of chromosomes from which 'we can / recalculate the evolutionary tree', and the rate of linguistic change known to be 1.5% a century; but the scientific is combined with the mythic, including the calculation of biblical creation to October 4004 BC; 'there must once have been / a common tongue, a first kiss'. The crossing-over of perspectives then moves deftly to the divergence of American and English exemplified in fire engine sirens, and we are where 'London leaves fall / yellow as cabs'. (Peter Daniels, Bow-wow shop)

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Five events I'm going to next week

Friday 2 March 2012

Where I'm sending stories, and why

In the last few months I've sent stories to the Commonwealth, HE Bates (Northampton) and Grace Dieu competitions. Now I've sent to Exeter, Bristol, and Nottingham, and once I've bought a toner cartridge will send to Frome, Bridport, Yeovil, and Weckin Writers. It will cost me over 50 quid. Why have I done it?

  • I want to clear the decks. I want to get out of re-write mode and start something new
  • The alternatives aren't always free. For example Narrative magazine charges $20 per submission (except for 2 weeks in April), and Glimmertrain is competition-driven. Magazines that use submishmash sometimes charge $3 to cover costs. And some US magazines still only accept paper submissions, which aren't cheap.
  • I've looked through my old stories and feel that some have been unjustly neglected, or spoilt by a fixable flaw. I've significantly re-touched old ones, expanded/combined some Flash, and have written a new story from scraps.
  • I think getting a prize or getting published in a competition anthology will do at least as much for my writing as a 50 pound course would
  • I entered my local writing group's in-house story competition. 26 entries. I wasn't in the top 10.
  • I thought I was sending loads of stuff off, but I noticed on Writing Stats that in one (admittedly non-typical) year Tania Hershman did 155 submissions and Vanessa Gebbie 75. I've been lazy.
  • The odd acceptance makes it all worthwhile. Here are my most recent 2
    • Wow. Is there much more to say? I can't even imagine putting such a piece together. I can't imagine the time and work you put into it. Incredible. We're all astounded, and we're honored to publish it in our journal!
    • Many thanks for XXX - a real pleasure to type out

Sunday 26 February 2012

Broadening the mind

The side of our dryer has tickets and postcards from some places I've been to - Vatican city, Venice, Torino, Pisa, Portsmouth, Luxor, Aswan and Giza. I've stayed with locals in Italy, Czechoslovakia, Germany, France and Morocco, immersing myself in French or Italian. I've also visited India, Denmark, Austria, Eire, Scotland, Wales, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Greece and Spain. I quite often get a story out of a visit to a new place (about being a visitor). Of my published stories an SF one is set in India, a pretentious one is set in Morocco, and another's in the USA where they sit out on their wooden porches on hot summer nights. Those stories could trivially be relocated, but I have one story set in pre-Perestroika Prague that couldn't be moved.

My poetry's largely immune to influence except for the odd image. In my poetry pamphlet one poem's set in Egypt (ten years before I went), one partly in Wicklow (I've never been there; I found the name on a map), one in the USA's Badlands (I've never been to the States) and one in pre-Euro Amsterdam (been there, but may have got some details wrong). The days following my return from holiday can be productive though, while the familiar is still somewhat strange, and the new's mixing with the old.

Writers sometimes win travel bursaries. I think they'd be wasted on me unless they involve waking on trains or staying in rooms high over cities. Michael Longley wrote "People say travel broadens the mind, but I think in a way it shallows the mind. Going back to the same place year after year is an extraordinary experience: you just keep noticing things". I don't feel quite like that, but I know what he means. The following quotes from The 50 most inspiring travel quotes of all time are closer to the mark.

  • "There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign", Robert Louis Stevenson
  • "People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home", Dagobert D. Runes
  • "For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move", Robert Louis Stevenson
  • "All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware", Martin Buber
  • "Not all those who wander are lost", J. R. R. Tolkien

Monday 20 February 2012

How I choose where to send prose

People have recently asked me where they should send their prose. I've shown them lists of magazines and prizes but there are too many options for them to cope with. So here's what I do.

  • Factors - Length, Type, and Quality affect my choice as does where I've send stories to in the last year, and how desperate I am. I don't send to any mag that's accepted or rejected me in the last 9 months or so.
  • What I do with good 2000 word literary stories - If I think I've written my best story ever, I save it for the Bridport competition. After that I consider "London Magazine" and "Stand". Then (or straight away if the story's not so amazing) "Riptide", "Iota", "Ambit," "Under the Radar", "Staple", "Tears in the Fence", "Warwick Review" and "Horizon Review". If it's the right time of the year I go for the Bristol and shortFiction competitions (both offer publication and prizes). The advantage of competitions is that they're anonymous and you know when you can send the story out again.
    US mags are increasingly tempting - they're often easier to submit to than UK magazines are. In the last 2 years I've tried (unsuccessfully) "Alaska Quarterly Review", "Triquarterly", "Tin House", and "McSweeney's". There are many other respectable magazines to choose from, and unlike their UK counterparts they often accept simultaneous submissions. For rankings, see the Pushcart Prize Rankings. For other details (e.g. how quickly they reply, etc) see Duotrope
  • What I do with good 750-1000 word fairly literary stories - I look at Smokelong quarterly (my first option), Ink, Sweat & Tears, Everyday fiction, The Pedestal Magazine, Journal of Microliterature and Flashquake.
  • What I do with good 500 word stories - I try Quick fiction and Vestal review.
  • What I do with other stories - I send to Right Hand Pointing (max 500 words) and many other mags - see Tania Hershman's Non-complete list of UK and Ireland outlets
  • Cover letters - Several mags want them. I have a standard bio that I always use, saying where I live, where I've been published, and where I blog. Just a paragraph or 2.
  • Submission record - submishmash is used by many magazines as a submissions system. It also stores your submission history. I use spreadsheets and paper.
  • The worst thing that can happen? - That you send your best story ever to a rubbish magazine and they accept it. You need the confidence boost of acceptances so in lean patches you might send good stories to less good mags, but otherwise I suggest you keep your best stories for the best markets and be patient.
  • The next worst thing that can happen? - That you send it nowhere.

Of course, my idea of which magazines are good may not correspond to your notion. You'll need to do market research. Here's another opinion - Salt's "The Best British Short Stories 2011" edited by Nicholas Royle chose stories from these sources: books (5), non-UK mags (3), newspapers (3), Warwick Review (3), London Magazine (1), Ambit (1), Wasafiri (1), Riptide (1), New Welsh Review (1), online competition anthology (1)

Thursday 16 February 2012

Notes about "Escape"

On Vanessa Gebbie blog's there are some notes about my "Escape" poem. The poem was written in 2001, cobbled together from notebook fragments. Escape from what? At the end the main character's expressively at one with the universe, but it's a universe of blues - eyes and temple domes, the domes painted with stars.

Sunday 12 February 2012

Forthcoming UK story competitions

Here are some competitions you may be interested in
CompetitionWordsDeadline1st prizeFeeExtrasInfo
Grace Dieu2000 28th Feb £500£5rules
Mslexia 2200 19th Mar£2000£10women rules
Exeter3000 31st Mar£250£4rules
Flash 50050031st Mar£300£5rules
Bristol3000 31st Mar£1000£7anthology chancerules
short Fiction6000 31st Mar£500£10 for 2free magazinerules
Nottingham2500 30th Apr£1000£10anthology chancerules
Frome220031st May£300£5 rules
Bridport5000 31st May£5000£8rules
Yeovil2000 31st May£500£6rules
V.S. Pritchett5000 29th Jun£1000£5just 1 prize rules
Wrekin Writers1200 9th Jul£150£3 rules

Friday 10 February 2012

England's literary magazines, 1985-2012

I've just put England's literary magazines, 1985-2012 online - more to do with nostalgia than than market information, but experienced submitters might be interested.

Friday 3 February 2012

My notebooks

I don't carry around a notebook in the way that some artists keep a sketchpad with them, but I (like most writers, I suspect) have a place where I record scraps. I read through them when I'm short of ideas. Here are my last 8 entries to give you a flavour - typically short, so I've added some explanations

  • "I can tell you that ..." (after noticing that people on TV sometimes start sentences that way)
  • "writers sublet their poems to readers"
  • "a poem with a large catchment area" (I think I meant like a river rather than a school)
  • "her tits really get on my tits"
  • "love's austere wound"
  • "Recently my parents have started staying separately with us"
  • "basketball hoops over garage doors"
  • "Golden Brain Award from the Californian-based Minerva Foundation" (a Cambridge prof has just won this. Apparently it's prestigious)

Usually such fragments lead to nothing, but you never know. I also keep lists of words/phrases I should use more often, most recently - "flexed/ coagulate/ shingle-suck/ slapped together/ mollycoddle/ swivel/ quondam/ fondly"

And here are extracts of pages from 2001, each with a line from my Escape poem. As you can see, it's all a bit of a Lucky Dip.

Tuesday 17 January 2012


There's a Middle East religion with a god that is half book, half man. He spends his time reading himself. I don't think I read that much, but libraries certainly figure in my life. Snakeskin once accepted a poem of mine called Interlibrary Love, about 2 libraries trying to chat each other up using ISBNs, and I use library imagery both in poetry and prose.

According to the OED, Chaucer's the first recorded writer to use "library" as an English word. He might have had as many as 60 texts in his own collection. The University Library, 2 miles away from here, has 8 million books or so, sorted broadly by subject, then size, then age. As long as you use the catalogue it's a mighty useful resource. My pamphlet's not in there, but it's in the British Poetry Library. If you're ever down in London, pop in. It's near Waterloo Station and is open 6 days a week (closed Mondays). You'll find books and many current magazines there. I've just discovered that it also has a folder for press cuttings about me. Ah, fame.

2 miles the other way from my house is this "library phonebox" in a nearly village - look carefully and you'll see it has shelves of books. It would be a shame if libraries disappeared. Some small ones are already disappearing near us. The University Library's collection of printed journals will surely shrink once people become used to reading them online - I can read "American Poetry Review", "Parnassus", "Poetry", "Southern Literary Journal" and 793 other literary periodicals online through the university nowadays. E-books will supplant paper versions sooner or later. But at least the University Library has a decent cafe.