Tuesday 24 December 2013

A UK short-story submission schedule for early 2014

I shall try to submit to most of these

Sunday 22 December 2013


Not a good year. My father died in November, after a short illness.

Pleasures were largely vicarious. I was pleased that people I know had first publications

  • Giotto's Circle by Diana Brodie (Poetry Salzburg, 2013) - Diana and I attend Cambridge Writers meetings each month. I expect to see more publications from members before long.
  • Dress of Shadows by Emma Danes (Smith/Doorstep, 2013) - Emma was a Cambridge Writers member.
  • The only reason for time by Fiona Moore (Happenstance, 2013) - Fiona's a long-time friend of a friend. Her pamphlet quickly sold out (almost before the first review appeared) and has been reprinted! It was praised in The Guardian!! She's become involved with editing Rialto.

It's also been a good year for Fiona Moore's (and my) publisher, HappenStance. Helena Nelson chatted to the Queen.

I can remember only one acceptance for this year - a less than 3% acceptance rate for prose and poetry combined. Partly this is because I've been trying to find homes for one of my less fashionable styles of poetry. In an attempt to create an audience I've written an article to justify that style, but can't get that accepted either. I've written more poetry than in average years but it's no better than average. Prose output has fallen away. It's been a year of looking back. More than ever I think I peaked when I was 11 or so. I found this school report while tidying my father's house

Tuesday 17 December 2013

Artistic simplicity

In his blog post Simplicity's tightrope Matthew Stewart points out that "Syntactic simplicity is just as capable of ambition and is even more dangerous as its opposite number. Moreover, there's no gorgeous language to hide behind if the verse falls flat on its face. Later he writes that "Hamish Whyte's ... new HappenStance pamphlet, 'Hannah, are you listening?' is an excellent example of such a kind of verse". He adds, and I agree, that "Poetry doesn't have to be flash to be memorable".

I've just been reading that pamphlet, and I too wondered about the issue of simplicity. My job in education involves trying to express concepts as simply as possible, but both at work and in poetry there are complications -

  • Accessibility isn't the same as simplicity. The bible's parables, or Blake's "Songs ..." aren't simple - that's why they've endured.
  • Minimalism isn't the same as simplicity - "Artistic simplicity is more complex than artistic complexity for it arises via the simplification of the latter and against its backdrop or system" - Yury Lotman
  • Sometimes things aren't as simple as they look. Sometimes we need to make familiar things strange, to see them in a new light. "Principia Mathematica" famously took hundreds of pages to show that 1 plus 1 equals 2. And we're learning how complex basic perception and language processing are - "The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity" - Wittgenstein.
  • Some things that appear difficult ("Magic Eye" autostereograms, for example) can suddenly become easy to some people while remaining difficult to disbelieving others - "One of two kinds of clearness one should have - either the meaning to be felt without effort as fast as one reads or else, if dark at first reading, when once made out to explode" - Hopkins
  • Maybe simple poetry is more likely to be interpreted as deep and strong rather than bland and unambitious if the poet's already famous

Some academics prefer poetry that they can spend pages analysing and decoding - it makes them feel useful. Some poets know this, and write accordingly. Of course there are many, more acceptable reasons for telling it slant. Centuries ago, Demetrius wrote "ambiguity may often add strength. An idea suggested is more weighty: simplicity of statement excites contempt".

In computing there's a concept known as "syntactic sugar" - features added to a computing language that make life easier for humans without affecting functionality. In poetry there might be "syntactic curry" - features (like broken syntax) added to disguise the quality of the ingredients. Perhaps the realisation of this is why poets tend to write more simply as they age (though there are numerous exceptions - Blake, for example). Auden never again wrote anything as baffling as "The Orators". Kathleen Jamie's poetry is growing in simplicity. It seems to me that Jorie Graham and Denise Riley write most simply when writing about something that strongly affected them emotionally.

I don't often write "simple but strong" poetry, partly because I write short prose too (though Yury Lotman claimed that "Prose is a later phenomenon than poetry, arising in a period of chronologically more mature esthetic consciousness ... notwithstanding its seeming simplicity and closeness to ordinary speech, prose is esthetically more complex than poetry"). At this moment I'm more interested in poetry that lets language show through - sounds, letters, unwanted associations, miss-hearings, misspellings - rather than making language transparent. So consequently Hamish Whyte's pamphlet seems like too much of a good thing at the moment.

Friday 13 December 2013

Review styles

When I write up a poetry book I try to avoid being impressionistic, and try to support my views with quotes or statistics. I don't often write an essay showing how the book in question relates to poetry at large. This makes the write-up less entertaining to read, and less quotable.

Here's the end of a review that I recently read.

In a postmodern world, there is an unapologetic desire to create a rich, mellifluous language within the spareness and anti-Romanticism of a post-modern world, one which can recalibrate the atavistic, almost Pantheistic presence of nature in a secular, degraded world. Again and again, these poems articulate what it is to work through pain and hardship, towards hard-won acceptance and the possibility of forgiveness:

"as the morning slips through
              my fingers like sand,
like love, and the tireless waves push on
                into their own futures, as I reach
      for a pen, struggling to transcribe
                   word by word, sentence by sentence,
               this fragile
                                             … yes"

The review (by Linda Rose Parkes from ink, sweat and tears) is of a book by Sue Hubbard. It's almost the opposite of the style I use, though it's a perfectly valid style. In themselves, the quoted phrases "slips through my fingers like sand", "tireless waves push on" and "struggling to transcribe ... this fragile ... yes" strike me as being un-ironized clichés. The indentation increases my feeling that the poet's twisting the poeticising dial to 11. So I was hoping that the review might explain the melodramatic layout and choice of imagery. However, the grandiose preceding paragraph makes the quoted poetry seem rather bathetic - the prose and poetry undermine each other. If the prose is all that can be said in defence of that poetry, then that poetry's not for me. And I'd be wary of reading more of the reviewer's prose.

Contrast that with the following by Jennifer K. Dick from "Tears in the fence" No.58, Winter 2013/14 (of Marilyn Hacker's translation of Habib Tengour)

Here, Hacker's masterful translation abilities and ear for the music of poetic excel, bringing across from the French into English such lyric gems as the quatrain that begins the poem on page 54

Go into exile far from my back
dark defense     to trace
curve    locate an embrace
beneath this high dry tree

Here, the central embracing rhymes (trace/embrace) marry the delicate finger tracing a line over the skin or a trail to the other or of return and the more ferocious clinging connection of the embrace as a body locates and grasps another under a tree. The poem continues to manoeuver between connection and loss, the language mirroring this struggle, distancing itself from and connecting with the reader as the poem continues:

marble spring like
losing your time confusing and

gnawing at yourself ephemeral

fluctuating in allegory
excessively lost

Wavering and weaving through unpunctuated space, the enjambment of these elliptic lines invite the reader to read and combine these words into various interchanging sentence fragments, fusing and separating them, 'excessively lost' and thus 'fluctuating' until, pages later, the poem will draw to a close with far more grounded 'he' and 'she'.

I can't see how the quoted quatrain is a "lyric gem", and "locate an embrace/ beneath this high dry tree" doesn't sound like a "more ferocious clinging connection" (it's the opposite of ferocious - I hear allusions to "left high and dry" or even a crucifiction scene) but at least the prose is trying to explain and justify the poet's choices, aware that readers like me might need help. I may not agree with the review, but it's useful. It made me go back and read Dick's poetry in a new light.

Friday 6 December 2013

The Two Cultures

I'm no scientist, but sometimes I've been able to combine my interests in poetry and computing. I supervised a student in a project about Analysing Sound Patterns. I think it's healthy for people to be interested in both the cultures. In general though, I'm rather dubious about the attempts at fusion. And I'm not the only one -

  • "There's no better evidence for the relevance of Snow's chasm between the two than the nature of the attempts by literary intellectuals to bridge it ... In general, if, as we have seen, all attempts to bridge the gulf between Snow's two poles have failed ... do we need to bridge the gulf in the first place? After all - to put it in the most simplistic terms - art and science are performing very different functions" (Roger Caldwell, "PN Review", 2009)
  • "there may be something like a scientific approach incorporated into something which may still be poetry, but not vice versa" (Miroslav Holub)
  • "Be sceptical of any science-art initiative and you are liable to find yourself marked down as a narrow-minded reactionary. If a new work of art is based on a theme related to science, most critics will give it an easy ride... It seems that this flavour of political correctness encourages intellectual laziness, allowing shallow and sentimental nonsense about the relationship to pass for serious thought" (Graham Farmelo, "New Scientist", 1999)

See my Poetry about Science in the UK and Science and the Arts articles for details.

"Tears in the fence" No.58 (Winter 2013/14) has an interesting 2 page editorial about science and poetry. Here are some quotes with my comments in italics

  • "C.P.Snow's famous Two Cultures split from the sixties appears to be diminishing as more poets are seeing the metaphorical connection, as an expansive tool, between the two"
    I think Snow's main point was that the people he mixed with considered it ok to be clueless about science but would look down on anyone who failed to recognise a famous Shakespeare quote. The popularity of Science programs on TV (even University Challenge has non-trivial science questions nowadays) combined with the devalued status of modern poetry in the UK has helped change the balance of respectability of the two cultures.
    The status at universities has changed too. Compared to science degrees, Lit/poetry degree courses are cheap to run, but student numbers are declining. Creative writing courses (also cheap to run) are on the increase though.
  • "One of the aims is to make the language of scientific sub-cultures more accessible rather than technical and exclusive"
    I thought text-books did that. Besides, there may be legitimate reasons why scientific language might be hard to understand (e.g. people don't read text books). I'd have thought that poets (especially experimental poets) had far more of an image problem regarding cliquey obscurantism.
  • "Postgraduate poets at Southampton University participated in multidisciplinary work with scientists, which saw them engage with the structure of turbulence, bioethanol applications, microbial soil ecology, binding proteins to surfaces using quantum mechanics"
    Quantum Mechanics? Sounds impressive. I wonder what the nature of the engagement was. Is a photographer taking photos of test-tubes engaging with chemistry? Is a word-salad of physics terms much to do with Physics? I believe Jo Shapcott started an OU Science degree - that's the start of engagement. Ethnic minorities might get a bit grumpy about WASP poets getting paid to write poems about their ethnic experience. Scientists probably respect authority too much to challenge the right of "acknowledged poets" to write about science, or to criticize the results. See the Jacket article on required expertise for further discussion
  • "There is a strong sense that space can and should be created for poetry and scientific experiment to come together, both in and outside of the lab. A great deal of the ground work for creating such a space has been achieved by poets, thinkers and performance artists, such as Marina Abramovic, John Cage, Charles Olson"
    Science experiments and Art experiments usually work in very different ways, not least of which being the objective evaluation of outcomes. Few scientist do "blue-sky research". If they're "just experimenting" they don't publish their results, though they may learn from the experience.
  • "The connection between poetry and science surely stems from their combined interest in things, organic relationships and how things connect and impinge on life. There is a continual drive to observe and discover, which is shared by both communities, and could be introduced at school"
    Observing and discovering is done by cooks, gardeners, miners, babies, etc. Do all poets show powers of observation (see the poem below)? Nowadays, do any poets discover? We no longer turn to poets or literature for insights. "[Criticism] might contribute in a modest way to our very survival" (Terry Eagleton, 1981). "Like thatching or clog dancing, literary criticism seems to be something of a dying art" (Terry Eagleton, 2007)
  • "Poets should be questioning, investigating the processes, procedures and couriers of knowledge in an attempt to illuminate benefits, losses, and unknown connections as well as offering lateral, non-mechanistic and visionary ways forwards"
    I guess some poets like to think of themselves as "visionary", as going "forwards". It's not clear to me that poets are well placed to question and investigate processes and procedures though. In what sense do poets engage with knowledge? Poets may yearn for cultural accreditation, but creative writing courses struggled even to get University accreditation.

The editorial also mentions James Wilkes' Bracketing the World: Reading Poetry through Neuroscience from "The White Review".

Later in the magazine is "The Forces" by Dorothy Lehane, who's involved with Litmus, a grant-aided project linking poetry and science. It's a poem in 5 sections, each headed by a formula. Here's the start and end of section 4.

F g = Gm1m2/r2 [gravity]

made up by science; same evolution, same dinosaurs, same helix
cheeky tryptic, de facto damn, tsk gravity, blame recreational sex,
Galileo Galilei is a pal of tall order, we are talking torsion,
postulations, telekinesis, who has been invited to our pool party,
masquerade only, call gravity clotted, if a clot is a mass
and if a mass falls, warfarin combats that, seafaring combats echo
thanks then for gravity, if
you think about urine floating, certainly the repose is thanks.

p.s. Hannah Wood's GCSE Science Experiment to Test the Durability of a Chemical Bond between Romeo and Juliet is fun.

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Some photos from home

Salvaged from the loft - my old chemistry set, with copper sulphate dried in the beaker.

An old stage-prop from a life long ago (though I didn't create the prop or appear on stage). Another path not taken.

The computer I learnt programming on. The "32" is short for "32K". Maybe I should see if it still works.

A sign on my local library's door. My poetry pamphlet's called "Moving Parts".

Sunday 24 November 2013

600 write-ups

I've just posted my 600th write-up on my LitRefs Reviews blog. As I explain in a rationale, they're not usually reviews as such. Some of them - e.g. The Atmospheric Railway - are only a sentence or two. Others - e.g. The Best British Poetry 2011 - go on for ages. The top 5 most popular entries are (for differing reasons, I suspect)

Thursday 21 November 2013

Some photos from work

I'm wondering how to use this notice from a cardboard box. Stick it secretly on a poet's back?

A door that's a few metres from my office. I think I get the message.

Another notice from my workplace.

My current office.

2 labs that I've never visited.

Wednesday 13 November 2013

3 newish UK story sites

Thursday 24 October 2013

Curate's Egg poems

Marking a multiple choice quiz, should you penalise wrong answers? It's a ploy that deters guessers - it keeps them honest, stops them bluffing or taking too many chances.

If a stanza of a poem doesn't do anything, do you just skip over it or do you penalize it? Perhaps it's there for other readers, not you. But suppose it affects your enjoyment of the rest of the poem? Maybe it's crass, sexist, derivative, etc. Would you ignore it then? Suppose instead of a bad or pointless stanza it's a questionable line, or word, or line-break?

Obviously, it depends. But on what? The proportion of the whole that's affected; the nature of the flaw. But also it depends on the type of work being read, the reader, and why they're reading. Some poets (Selima Hill?) tend to write uneven pieces. Others (Heaney?) don't. The perceived unevenness may be because the work is multi-style or polyphonic, the reader not equally at home with the various styles/voices. Some people (especially if they're judging) will judge a poem by its worst line. Others won't mind panning for gold, seeking rare and beautiful wonders. My impression is that

  • Non-narrative, discontinuous poems are more likely to be read with a pick'n'mix approach
  • If a line of a poem is much better than the rest, it's sometimes said to "be worth the admission fee alone", the rest of the poem excused

I don't see why readers should be more lenient with non-narrative pieces, and though I can understand why a good goal might justify going to an otherwise ordinary game, a poem's not a live event - it can be edited.

The reader's strategy can in time affect the poet's writing. If readers are going to ignore the bits they don't get, the poet's more likely to add more stanzas or more obscurity - after all, there's nothing to lose. I think the current fashion amongst frequent poetry readers is more indulgent than it was a decade or so ago. Perhaps the increasingly competent and voluminous output of creative writing students makes readers crave for something "a bit different".

Some poems contain a 2-D constellation of quotable fragments. What should fill the gaps between them? Dead wood or padding? Options include

  • Nothing - compacted fragment and nothing else
  • White space (to "let the images breath"; to provide space for fields to be generated between the poles)
  • Absorbent text that attempts to magnify/refract the effect of the powerful fragments
  • Text that attempts to provide continuity between the fragments (which may either amplify the fragments or mask their effect)
  • Text that's part of a different thread.

Sometimes when a reader and I disagree over a poem, I've asked them about certain phrases only to find that the reader's ignored them rather than try (and fail) to incorporate them into their interpretation. I don't see any problem with a poem containing self-contradictions, but if the reader edits those contradictions away, something's surely wrong somewhere.

Sometimes a reader (for personal/professional reasons) wants to like the poetry. Obscure poetry gives such readers more scope to do this - nothing needs to be explained and anything in it might be vital to the poem as a whole, so nothing can safely be deleted. Once some time has been invested in a text, it's rather hard to dismiss it, though some readers may give up, using variations of the "there are only so many hours in the day" argument

  • "If the poet's not going to bother editing their work, I don't have time to do the editing for them"
  • "I don't trust the poet. If there are so many phrases that make little sense to me, maybe the effect of the other words is delusionary, luck, a mirage. Maybe the poet's trying to bluff me"

I'm not against "hopeful monsters" as such though I'm less tolerant of padding (in the form of words or space) than many other readers are. Surplus words and line-breaks can make me wary of the other words and line-breaks that at first sight seemed effective. I begin to lose trust in the poet. Before long, the implicit reader-poet contract isn't worth the paper it's written on, so I start reading another book instead.

Friday 18 October 2013

Cornering a poetry market

There are advantages in becoming nationally (or regionally) known for writing poetry about a particular topics -

  • the media will know who to contact
  • commissions might come your way
  • you may be asked to edit an anthology or a magazine special issue
  • you might run a poetry festival session or a poetry school course
  • a non-poetry conference on the topic might ask you to run a session/workshop to provide "something different"

The topic shouldn't be too general ("bereavement", for example) or too esoteric. Some topics (medicine, therapy) have enough tie-ins with poetry to keep several poets busy. Here are some examples -

  • Ian McMillan has Football.
  • David Morley has Romani.
  • Maybe Lavinia Greenlaw and Mario Petrucci first come to mind when people want a quote about Science and Poetry.
  • Simon Armitage and pop music?
  • Michael Bartholomew-Biggs and Maths
  • Matthew Stewart and wine?
  • Jon Stone and Manga?

I work in a science setting, but Science and Poetry don't work well together for me, so when a few years ago I was asked about helping with a radio show on the topic, I suggested that they get in touch with Greenlaw. I've assembled a pamphlet on word-play (anagrams, acrostics) and poetry, though I read in the latest Rialto that Abigail Parry's finishing a Ph.D on word-play and poetry, out-trumping me.

So I'll plod as I am, comforted by the thought that there's less risk of being typecast.

Tuesday 1 October 2013

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Point of view workshop, 1st Oct

On Tuesday, 1st Oct, 7.30pm in Cambridge I'm doing a prose workshop about "point of view". 3 pounds for non-members. For details, see the Cambridge Writers page.

Saturday 7 September 2013

Free verse book festival 2013

It was good to meet up again with Acumen's Oxley's, Nine Arches Press and HappenStance, amongst others. I finally met Alison Brackenbury too. I bought more than I'd intended

  • "Shaler's Fish (Helen Macdonald)
  • "The Elephant Tests" (Matt Merritt)
  • "Of Science" (Morley and Brown, eds)
  • "The Longing machine" (Marcia Mentor)
  • "The Colour of Love" (Jonathan Steffen)
  • "Venetian Red" (Sue Hubbard)
  • "Sandcastles at Evening" (Martin Lyon)
  • "Uneasy Relations" (Michael Bartholomew-Biggs)
  • "Nearly the Happy Hour" (D.A. Prince)

A steady stream of visitors passed through, though they often seemed as interested in getting a book published as in buying books. Discussion topics included: how public funding might best assist poetry; the relative merits of being published in pamphlets, books, magazines, online; plagiarism; why HappenStance stalls always have food on offer; who's going to give up publishing poetry; whether poems or poets are a book's selling point.

Friday 30 August 2013

Upcoming UK story competitions

A few UK story competitions are coming up. The Fee:Prize ratio's not always good, but that's how most story competitions are.

Competition1st prizeFeeDeadlineWordsInfo
Prole£140£4Sep 302500online
Southport£150£3Oct 312000online
Tom-Gallon£1000FreeOct 315000online
London Magazine£500£10Oct 314000online
H E Bates£150£4Nov 42000online
Commonwealth£5000FreeNov 305000online

Friday 23 August 2013

Poetry and Maps

In the past I've tried to compare map-making to writing poetry. In my poem The King it says

trying to preserve the angles, the shortest distances,
the areas, but he can't have them all or even any 2

alluding to the idea that map-makers have tried several ways to represent the globe on a flat surface much as poets try to flatten experiences. In Obscurity (published in Sol) and especially New Pastorals - A Streetmap I went into more detail, pointing out that "Sometimes (as in maps of the Metro) connections may matter more than accurate distances and directions - they are spacialisations of time rather than depictions of space ... In tourist maps as in poems there's a balance between mimesis, knowledge and the formal requirements of the medium. Clarity of purpose doesn't imply stylistic monotony. Symbolism and Realism can be mixed, viewpoints can change (from plan to elevation, from absolute to personal), keys can be set up or recommended narratives and connections highlighted.". I ended the maps section rather grandly by writing "A poem is a map to assist in locating oneself in one's evolving world of language, as one slowly discovers a voice. Our poems increasingly have the gaudy colouring and po-mo stylistic variety of city maps."

My interest in this topic was rekindled on reading "Tears in the fence" (No 57 Summer 2013) where the ever-readable Andrew Duncan makes some worthwhile points about Fiona Sampson's Beyond the Lyric: A Map of Contemporary British Poetry

  • The idea of a map involves shared space. It places poets in relation to each other and must select technical features to be the dimensions of the map - its north and south. This must be very provocative to poets - who like to see themselves as autonomous and perfect, even if they habitually place everyone else in a shared space. Location at one, any, single point must irritate people who see themselves as present over whole areas where that spot is not. Poets like to think of the world as something that fits inside their poems, rather than vice versa (p.112)
  • Sampson's faithfulness to individual texts is like travelling by candlelight, a terrain of handkerchief-sized plots, snug in low visibility. This is the opposite of a map that puts local patches together in one set of uniform relations. (p.114-5)

Today I found "Language is not a vague province": Mapping and Twentieth-Century American Poetry, a fine dissertation by Alba Rebecca Newmann which goes much further than I ever could. She points out that

  • Within literary criticism, the seductions of the terms associated with cartography — map, mapping, itinerary, travelogue, guide, discovery, exploration, power, representation — are palpable. ... Unfortunately, well-versed as we are with simile, analogy, and metaphor, it is almost too easy for literary critics and scholars to say "This maps X onto Y," or "This text is a map of that culture or that experience." The limitation of much of this literary scholarship is its failure to investigate how maps themselves operate — not only what they describe, but how they establish relationships and organize knowledge
  • there are three cartographic ways of asserting authority or structuring knowledge that are particularly significant to the interdisciplinary study of maps and poems. These are: (1) maps articulate boundaries; (2) they delineate paths; and (3) they establish relationships.
  • it is poetry’s ability to reveal unexpected proximities, (or distances) —conceptual, etymological, visual, aural — that is most significant to our conversation about poetic condensation as a cartographic practice. In the relatively small space of the page, the juxtaposition of words, lines, and images creates a field of associations.
  • Understanding maps as artifacts, as rhetorical objects embedded in culture, does not allow our analysis of them to stop with a reading of their details or declarations. So, too, with poems. Once we have concentrated on what is on the page, we then must turn to talking about what is not on the page, and why: what circumstances, cultural or otherwise, may have contributed to the production of this utterance.

In her poetry classes she sometimes hands out maps for evaluation before giving the class poems. I hadn't thought of doing that. Sounds like fun.

Monday 12 August 2013

Upcoming UK poetry competitions

Several worthwhile UK poetry competitions are coming up

Competition1st prizeFeeDeadlineJudgeInfo
Buzzwords£600£417th AugMorleyonline
Cinnamon£1000£430th SepGrossonline
Troubadour£2500£521st OctSzirtes, Rees-Jonesonline
National£5000£631st OctCopus, Sweeney, Yehonline
Plough£1000£530th NovMotiononline
Cafe Writers£1000£430th NovRees-Jonesonline

Saturday 3 August 2013

The launch of "Giotto's Circle" by Diana Brodie

Over 60 people including Pauline Stainer were at the launch of "Giotto's Circle" by Diana Brodie. There were readings by Diana, family and friends. Huguette Chatterton sang some French songs.

Diana introduced some of the pieces, suggesting that when she was growing up in New Zealand she didn't feel she was in the right place. The perfect place, she said, might be the place where poems come from.

Related sites are

Monday 22 July 2013


Spent a week in Crete, reading Horowitz's Holmes novel on the flight over. I went tanked up with writing ideas and wrote 6 little poems (which would normally have taken me 6 months to write). I didn't see Zeus's birthplace, but saw a recreation of Nikos Kazantzakis's room.

People talk about the guesswork at the Knossos site, but what struck me at the museums was the amount of extrapolation involved in many of the exhibits. The photo shows a picture that is mostly recreation. I wondered about trying that idea with words - terminals etc. Another theme was the amount of finds that aren't exhibited where they were dug up. Malia finds are often in Iraklion or even the British Museum

Tuesday 2 July 2013

The UK Short story situation in 2013

In 2002 "fewer than 25 books of short stories were produced by mainstream UK publishers. And two thirds were by writers from abroad" (Debbie Taylor, Mslexia, Spring 2003). The situation then wasn't as dire as it sounds because small presses were producing books. But things aren't so much better nowadays for authors wanting to publish stories. Here are some notes I wrote for a local group


To get the full Duotrope you nowadays have to pay. 3 useful lists are


New outlets

Magazines are closing down faster than they're starting up (even some e-mags have closed down recently). Newish UK paper magazines include

  • Structo (over 50 pages of prose in a typical issue)
  • Prole (over 90 pages of prose in a typical issue)
  • Lighthouse (part of the intention of the journal is to act as a pathway to the publisher, Gatehouse, who are looking to build a catalogue of chapbooks in the coming years)

Salt have recently relaunched the "Best British Short Stories" yearly anthology, which is quite popular. However, it only prints previously published stories.

July 2013's "Writing Magazine" has an article on getting Novellas published nowadays. The article's better on the history of the novella than its future, though it does mention Kindle Singles

There are places online where stories can be downloaded individually for 59p or more, but nothing's become established as far as I know. Of course, you can self-publish an e-collection of short stories.


Flash is an expanding sector. I keep a list of list of Flash outlets.

Sunday 30 June 2013

A brief history of Tim

I was born in Sultan Road. Not only has the house been knocked down but even the address seems to have disappeared in a gap between 182 and 196.

We moved to a prefab. I recall nothing of it. I recall my parents saying that there was a pylon in the back garden. Last week I thought I'd try to track it down. It's still there, fenced in between houses. That's some pylon.

When I was about 2 we moved to a flat. I noticed only this year that there's a milestone outside, the timeless stone bolted over by corroded metal.

Then we moved to a house. Here's the calendar in our living room, the original "Y" of "Friday" having been worn away by thumbs.

I've put together a jollier pictorial CV too.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

False dawns (or where it all went wrong)

I used to win prizes, but it all seems so long ago. The first was for prose in 1988. I note in this press cutting that I said I was a "computer science research analyst". Umm. I didn't really think in terms of literary trajectories then, so I just plodded on. In 1991 I came 2nd in the same competition.

I won 150 pounds for a poem in 1992, after which I tried more seriously to reach the next level. I entered pamphlet competitions, getting as far as appearing in Poetry Business anthologies of runners-up, but only that far. I rationalized my failure by claiming that I no longer wrote competition poems, and I may have had a point. I often don't like the poems that win prizes nowadays - the shortlist usually contains more interesting work.

With prose I've fewer excuses for failing in competitions. Some of my pieces aren't mainstream but a good few are supposed to be. I've tried competitions big and small. I usually see merit in the winners of open competitions. It wasn't until 2007 that I won something else - short Fiction's competition. By then I had enough stories for a collection, and tried entering Salt's get-a-book-published competitions. No luck. Another false dawn.

But then, in December 2010, my poetry pamphlet came out. I tried to capitalize on it, approaching festival organisers and entering pamphlet competitions again. In 2011 I came 2nd in the Purple Moose Poetry Prize. First prize was pamphlet publication. Perhaps that was the turning point - so near yet so far. The pamphlet remains unpublished. All was not lost however, because in October 2012 my story book appeared. Again I looked for gigs, I kept on submitting to magazines and sending follow-up books into competitions. I even tried an editor or two. No luck. I'm not even treading water: my appearances in magazines are scarce now - I'm in the longest rut of rejections that I can remember.

Somewhere along the line I was hoping for an appearance in a Forward or Salt anthology, or something more thematic - Oulipo maybe. When I read anthologies I usually think that my best eligible piece is better than the anthology's worst (I suspect many other writers think that too, with some validity). No luck.

So what went wrong? Why was I never able to go to the next level when I needed to? Why did I keep losing momentum? Needless to say, I don't write enough or well enough - trying to keep a career afloat writing only a dozen poems and four stories a year is doomed to fail, even if all the pieces were publishable (mine weren't). I had a rather rigid idea of the stages one must progress through before trying to publish a book. Also I didn't seek opportunities to get into forthcoming themed anthologies, send books to publishers, or visit enough festivals and events.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Poetry success!

On 17th April I went to the launch of Fiona Moore's pamphlet. Now, less than 2 months later, it's sold out. Recently in his blog another Happenstance pamphleteer, Matthew Stewart, wrote about selling books at readings. His "Inventing Truth" has nearly gone too. So poetry does sell!

Other than quality, what's the secret? Matthew's done 8 readings. Fiona surely hasn't had time for that many, though I think she's done 2 or 3. Are they infernal bloggers/tweeters? No. Have they had glowing reviews? Well Matthew's had some decent ones in print. Fiona's had none yet as far as I know, though some online reviews have been very encouraging. Is the poetry accessible? Well it's not obscure, but it makes no concessions. I'd say it belongs to the literary mainstream but it's not easy reading by any means. Maybe living in London helps? Fiona lives there, but Matthew works much of the time in Spain!

Happenstance authors might well buy each others' publications, and there are many Happenstance authors around nowadays, but that's only part of the story. Several Happenstance pamphlets are in short supply. I think last year's "After the Creel Fleet" by Niall Campbell has gone already, so I guess you should visit the happenstance shop and grab what you like before it's too late.

And my other publisher, Nine Arches Press, has 2 poetry collections nominated for the 2013 Michael Murphy Memorial Prize - Alistair Noon's Earth Records and Maria Taylor's Melanchrini are both on sale from Inpress. Bloodaxe and Carcanet are amongst the competition.

Wednesday 5 June 2013

The lessons of psychology

Psychology has more than its fair share of silly research and surveys conducted just to get in the papers, but the following findings come from reputable sources like The Psychologist, The Rialto, and Mind, Brain and Narrative

  • Make them smile! - If you read a poem while holding a pen between your teeth, you'll view it more positively than if you hold the pen only in the lips. This is because holding a pen between your teeth makes you smile, and your facial expression affects your emotion. Apparently there's substantial scientific evidence for this
  • Reading fiction's good for you - "The results showed a positive correlation between exposure to narrative fiction and performance-based measures of social ability ... Furthermore, there was a negative correlation between exposure to non-fiction and social ability"
  • Poetry might not be so good for you - During a recent research project into reading habits conducted at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, a cross-section of the public nominated poetry to be the most annoying category of book currently published .... after a sustained period of reading poems, thirty six complained of headaches or migraine, twenty-seven suffered indigestion, and two became argumentative resulting in violent exchange .... eighty-two of the hundred people tested did fall asleep for prolonged periods at some point during their reading of poetry. ... Of the twenty [sic] that were reading only first collections, forty-five became tense and highly agitated, thirty-eight were lethargic and dulled and three were recorded as feeling nauseous, while one particular man became sexually aroused and had to be physically removed from the building.
  • Why do you write? - 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 "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"
  • What does your writing reveal about your state of mind? - predictors of health are ... (1) high levels of positive emotion words, and moderate levels (not high or low levels) of negative words ... (2) increases in the use of causal words ... (3) switches in the use of different pronouns"
  • Don't worry about illegible texts - Under the appropriate circumstances, a text that induces less fluent reading should result in deeper processing. This seems so when typeface complexity is increased but not for increased syntactic complexity.
  • Happy families? - Parents are no happier than childless couples. In fact, once the children leave home, parents are sadder.
  • Know thyself - "People appear to know other people better than they know themselves, at least when it comes to predicting future behaviour and achievement. Why? People display a rather accurate grasp of human nature in general, knowing how social behaviour is shaped by situational and internal constraints. They just exempt themselves from this understanding, thinking instead that their own actions are more a product of their agency, intentions, and free will"

Tuesday 21 May 2013

The State of UK Poetry .. again

Salt's decision to no longer publish new single-author poetry books has helped precipitate a wider ranging discussion. I've little to add to the debate other than agreeing that the growth of the Creative Writing sector is happening faster than the rest of the UK poetry world can cope with. Here are some articles that are worth a read

  • Why is poetry not popular? ("Poetry is not popular, and in its current form, it can’t be. While the novel performs every aspect of its story-telling function, from reading in the airport to studying it at university, poetry has become a marginalised aspect of its original purpose" - the Judge)
  • So. Farewell then / Salt poetry books ... ("A free-market capitalist system is no less bizarre, in its dealings with literature, than any old-style communist regime that favoured socialist realism and sent other forms underground" - Charles Boyle)
  • The Health of Poetry ("We seem to be moving towards a model where people are kept ‘emerging’ for as long as possible – preserved in a kind of hopeful limbo, where they can gain lots of encouragement and support, but also spend lots of money on mentors and Arvon courses and MAs and competition fees and retreats" - Clare Pollard).
    ("When Arts Council England made its last round of funding decisions, support for writer development was massively increased at the same time that presses like Arc, Enitharmon and Flambard were told their annual funding was to be scrapped … Print on demand isn’t compatible with promoting poetry to a wider readership" - Neil Astley)
  • Ripples on a smooth sea, or storm in a teacup? (Adrian Slatcher)
  • Mapping Poetic Emergence 1.0 (an "attempt to describe some of the significant stages which are usually observable during the process of poetic emergence.")

Thursday 16 May 2013

Raiding the Loft

There was only one box of mine left in my parents' loft when I rummaged this week. Inside were some certificates, maths worksheets, pictures/postcards, computer game archives, and a few personal belongings. Nothing literary at all, though I've used some of it as source material.

I found three pictures of Quixote. I can't recall him ever being a theme. Maybe I just liked the paintings.

Here's a front cover of a computing magazine, and a review of my game. The review begins "Cricket is one of those rare finds - a decent simulation game that conjures up a feel of the real thing. It even has some of the tedium of a 5 day test match". Fair enough.

I wrote the assembler code with a pen initially (the code here controls the bowled ball's trajectory, I think), and sometimes hand- assembled it to produce the machine code.

I designed the graphics pixel by pixel. The pictures here show some frames of a moving bat - in those days, you could only use colour by going lo-res, making the pictures blocky.

Here's my first self-employed tax form - quite a lot of money in those days.

I used to spend some nights in a London house where somebody collected ducks. I don't think I ever contributed.

I went through a phase when I knew some (ex) art and/or performance students. Here's some art by me

And I collected art by others. This is the design for an art project where the student decided to make their mother's house visible from as far away as possible by putting the divorced father's swivelling shaving mirror in an upstairs window. I also borrowed their postcards if their fathers sent them messages from South Tunisia.

Wednesday 8 May 2013

Miscellaneous lit quotes

I've been clearing out my mailbox (1000s of posts). Here are some lit-related fragments -

  • From "New Walk", issue 3
    Patrick McGuinness: The real issue for me is that the poetry reviewing culture is so poor - the only reviews you see are positive, exercises in approval and rubber-stamping

    Philip Morre: But you're hardly a noted practitioner of the scrutineering review yourself, are you?

    Patrick McGuinness: Since you ask, perhaps not, but I've written some reviews that were evaluative rather than just log-rolling, I think. I even sent a negative (commissioned) review to Poetry Review a couple of years ago, was thanked profusely by the editor for my honesty and told that it was exactly the sort of review she was after. A few months later it was dropped, and I was told by the same editor that it was for my own sake sake, that I might regret it, etc.
  • 2011 rates -
    New Yorker $460/36-line-poem
    Paris Review $75/poem
    Ploughshares $25/page
    Poetry $10/line
  • Burnett's edition includes "all of Larkin's poems whose texts are accessible." These texts, meticulously checked against primary sources, are offered under four rubrics:
    • the four volumes published in Larkin's lifetime "preserved as collections" (117 poems);
    • other poems published in the poet's lifetime but not included in any collection (36 poems in order of publication date);
    • poems not published in the poet's lifetime (403 poems in chronological order determined by the date on which Larkin stopped working on each poem);
    • and undated or approximately dated poems (10 poems).
  • "As the pseudonymous Harvey Porlock noted, 'Reading reviews of modern poetry is like attending prize-giving in a small, caring primary school: everyone has done terribly well, it's all absolutely marvellous'"
  • We fray into the future, rarely wrought/ Save in the tapestries of afterthought - Richard Wilbur

Wednesday 24 April 2013

George Szirtes on the sonnet

On April 23rd, George Szirtes and some open-mikers gave a standing-room-only Cambridge CB1 audience an entertaining evening of sonnets. The sheer volume of Szirtes' output can be intimidating. His 2008 "New & Collected Poems" is 520 pages long, and he's kicked on since then, extending his range. Focusing on the sonnet only restricts him somewhat - he said he's written over 300 of them!

He highlighted the longevity and flexibility of the form. Those two features are probably related, but there might be psychological (or even physiological) reasons why the sonnet endures. Don Paterson in his "101 Sonnets" was prepared to include "any poem with fourteen lines". "The Reality Street Book of Sonnets" cast its net wider (download the Introduction). Szirtes didn't want to be pinned down to a definition, instead suggesting that a sonnet is like a room, with certain expectations of scale, proportion, purpose and intimacy that the poet can choose to ignore.

He studied Fine Art in London and Leeds, and was asked in the Q&A if there was a strong visual element during composition. After all, many of the sonnets he read were about colours. He replied that there was always a dialogue with words, each line/word capable of changing the course of the poem. Rhyming in particular can take you where you didn't plan to go. You need to be ready to follow. Curiosity and a non-doctrinaire openness to impressions seem to be a source of word production for him - liking a youtube clip, a colour, or a goal may provoke him to wonder what there is in the phenomenon that's interesting him.

I sometimes look upon the sonnet as a franchise. You buy into it to take advantage of the image. You might add some local variation (curried burgers maybe) but go too far and the parent company might disown you - you have a duty to the brand as well as your customers. I have trouble writing sonnets. Finding them a technical challenge I become too much of a slave to the brand. According to my notes I've published 9 sonnets. I don't recall most of them. Two are acrostics, of which I'm unjustly proud (one, called "Going down", reads "Cambridge Blues" down the left margin). I've recently entered a sonnet for the Ware Poetry Competition but only because the content determined the form. So like a fool I followed.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Chrissy Williams and Fiona Moore launch

London was in a state of heightened awareness - the day before there were the Boston bombs, and it was the eve of Thatcher's funeral. What's more, London Book Fair was at Earl's Court. I day-tripped for the launch of HappenStance pamphlets by Chrissy Williams and Fiona Moore. Making the most of the day I went down early. I popped into Foyles, which has a useful range of magazines and anthologies (I bought "Structo 9"), popped into the Poetry Library to do some research (D A Prince, in London for the same launch, had beaten me to it) and visited 2 places for the first time - Brixton (why not?) and Stratford. I walked through the Westfield shopping centre to see the Olympic Park, then desperate for some real shops, went back over the train tracks only to find another shopping centre.

So much for the state of the nation, what about the state of British poetry? By the time I'd walked to the Crown Tavern past the side streets of parked police vans and stacked barricades, poets had overflowed onto the street. I think I saw Jon Stone, Kirsten Irving, Roddy Lumsden, and Simon Barraclough. In the packed room upstairs I talked to Paul Stephenson about getting a collection published. I wonder how much it matters nowadays. He's already much published in magazines and had 9 poems in the "Adventures in Form" anthology.

Chrissie Williams (on the left in the photo) had 4 poems in that anthology too, including "The Lost" which she read in front of a gold-framed mirror (a common back-drop for venues I've recently been to). I found her introductions (to "Green Lake" for example) useful, and her reading introduced me to a different way to access her poetry. When it clicks for me it's striking.

Re Adventures in Form I feel I'm between the 2 poets, having experimented with some Oulipo-ish forms, but having reservations about some other forms. In the main I felt more aligned with Fiona Moore's work. By chance, she and I share a non-poet friend who we've known for decades. Like Chrissie Williams she's been in many magazines and lives in London, but their poetry has little in common. Readers of her Displacement blog won't be surprised by the depth and thoughtfulness of the poems.

I think twin launches like this are an excellent idea, the poets and pamphlets being mutually supportive. John Field's already reviewed Flying into the Bear and the only reason for time. From what he says, you should be buying the pamphlets as soon as possible while supplies last. Try the Happenstance shop.

p.s. I've done write-ups of Flying into the bear and The only reason for time.

Monday 8 April 2013


We spent 4 days or so in Madesimo, Italy, staying a few metres from where the poet Giosuè Carducci frequently stayed and where he played cards in a bar. We skied. The long ski lifts suit me - I can read a few pages each time I go up. I took "Divorzio all'islamica a Viale Marconi" di Amara Lakhous to read. Alas, I took a tumble on the slopes (a blue one) and lost the book when I was only a few pages from the end. I couldn't find the book in shops, though I looked in all the ones we passed.

I went on to read "Birds of America", a short story collection by Lorrie Moore (I was interesting in the balance between comedy/ wordplay and character development) and "Absence has a weight of its own", a poetry collection by Daniel Sluman (whose poems are nothing like most of mine, though I have my moments). I wrote next to nothing.

I did my first social networking from abroad. I didn't realise that Facebook checked for suspicious activity.

Sunday 31 March 2013

Moving Parts - the website

When my story book was launched, I accompanied it with a website - By All Means. Rather belatedly I've now put together a website about my poetry pamphlet, Moving Parts - reviews, backstories, notes and movies. Copies of both publications are still available!

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Some links about recent poetry styles/formats

Saturday 16 March 2013

States of Independence, Leicester 2013

On Saturday 16 March I attended States of Independence where there were dozens of small press publishers. I went to the following talks -

  • Starting and running a small press/independent publishing business - Jane Commane (Nine Arches Press) and Ian Daley (Route Publishing) talked about running a small press.
    Ian started by publishing a student newspaper. Route started on 1st Jan 2000. He has brought into being several story collections from post-Industrial communities, as well as publishing memoirs and fiction, producing books in many forms (e-books since 2003). He said that when he'd assembled a collection after working in a community, the "elders" often veto'd the writing of the younger people who often had more in common with the young of other communities than with their parents.
    Nine Arches Press was started 5 years ago, beginning by publishing a magazine. They produced poetry pamphlets in 2009 when several indie presses were producing pamphlets. Books were nearly as easy as pamphlets so then they produced poetry books. In the UK, poetry and short stories go together, so they published story collections.
    They said that as DTP democratised production, the Web democratised distribution, but Discoverability remains a problem. They both use Print-on-Demand. Nine Arches Press have just started to distribute via Inpress. Ian Daley said that book distribution lags 4 years behind music distribution in terms of techniques. Feature articles sell many more books than Reviews do.
  • Keeping it short - Cathy Galvin and Charles Boyle (CB Editions) talked about the short story's prospects. New prizes, downloadable single stories, regular readings and Flash have helped revitalise the genre. They mentioned the newspapers' interest - The Sunday Times' competition (which Cathy Galvin helped create) with "the world's biggest short fiction cash prize", The Telegraph's Short Story Club and The Guardian's online "A brief survey of the short story" series.
    Charles Boyle pointed out that short texts are hard to classify - prose poems? Flash fiction? Where do you send them? Where do they go in bookshops?
    Jonathan Taylor (editor of Salt's "Overheard" anthology) suggested that short stories sometimes went through phases of mutual resemblance. Charles Boyle talked about a pervading tone of "exquisite doom".
  • The Lighthouse, and new short fiction - Alison Moore (Salt) was interviewed by Ross Bradshaw (Five Leaves). She acknowledged that chance played a part - she said she had her first story published in 2000, then later won a story competition judged by Nicholas Royle who asked if she had written a novel. She sent him a manuscript which she later doubled in length. He became her agent and got it published with a small company, Salt, that he was already involved with. Life was normal enough until it got on the Booker shortlist, then overnight foreign presses and film options came in, transforming the future both for the author and the press. The novel grew from an image - a man alone in an ex-lover's kitchen fiddling with his shoe.

I bought "New Walk (issue 1)", "Absence has a weight of its own" (Daniel Sluman, Nine Arches Press), and "White Sheets" (Beverley Bie Brahic, CB editions). My book sold at least one copy at the Nine Arches Press stall.

Thursday 7 March 2013

Learning from bad writing

The local writers group had Jeff Mackowiak as a speaker/judge. Amongst his academic interests is "badness in poetry". I didn't attend the meeting but maybe I should have. I read small-press literary magazines, online writing forums and go to writers meetings. Not all that I read or see at those venues is publishable. Bad or not, I think there's much to be learnt from it. Equally I think one can sometimes learn much about a well-known writer by considering their less successful works, where their techniques, quirks and habits are sometimes laid bare.

Reading anonymous work is a useful exercise - sometimes only the author's name distinguishes "pretentious" from "ambitious". Those who only read good work are leaving themselves vulnerable to charlatans, or to people who can imitate what sells. Bad work gives you a better appreciation of what is easy and hard to do, and helps you to calibrate your appreciation of supposedly better works. Bad work might be excellent in some respects - plot for example - but fatally flawed in another. It may be patchy - should a work be judged by its worst passages or its best? In "Reading like a writer" Francine Prose notes that "At lazy moments, F.Scott Fitzgerald could resort to strings of clichés".

Work in student magazines or contemporary foreign magazines can be especially useful - it might be brilliant, it may resemble nothing that you've read before. You can't judge by looking at the author's name. Sometimes even the genre is unrecognisable. You're on your own.

Friday 1 March 2013

My encounters with difficult poetry

I don't suspend disbelief very willingly. I like to stay close to the text. If there's something I don't understand I don't like skimming over it until I find something I do understand. When evaluating a poem I don't edit away the inconvenient mysteries. I'm prepared to blame the poet, even call their bluff. Consequently I struggle with some poetry, and read books that attempt to explain it to me. Amongst the books that analyse poems are

Where these sometimes fail for me is even when they can decode a difficult phrase, they don't explain why a simpler phrase wasn't used instead, or why a more obvious interpretation is discounted.

I also read theory and articles, mostly to shake me out of my habits -

Occasionally I write articles to help me collect together what I've learnt

Then there's the poetry itself. Sometimes I just give up. Elsewhen I write about the problems I have with particular books, trying to provide details about where my gaps in understanding are. The posts below are amongst my most popular, as if readers enjoy watching me expose my ignorance -

I suspect some of my troubles are caused by my lack of awareness of factors that affected the poet, though becoming aware of these factors doesn't always solve everything

  • Maybe there are unknown aims that compromise my view of the poem. If I only see this drawing as a rabbit looking left I might criticise the execution, not realising that it's a duck looking right too. If I then notice the duck and point out that the duck's not very good either, the artist might respond by saying that accuracy of either image isn't the point. And they'd be right, but if accuracy doesn't matter one way or the other, the artist might just as well be more accurate in order to placate people who judge by measuring the realism. Or is the artist's technique lacking? (it's my drawing, and mine certainly is). A poem, like a picture, can do more than demonstrate an idea - it can also fulfil other aims. The criticisms of the piece might still be valid even if the critic missed the "main point" - why should the main point be the only one?
  • Maybe the poem's constrained by a form that's hard to notice (it's an acrostic, or an N+7 piece, for example).
  • Maybe the poem's a reaction to something - the poet's previous style, or a prevailing fashion. This might explain the poem (and its historical or personal importance), but doesn't justify its contemporary value as a poem. An old poem rebelling against end-rhyme loses much of its force nowadays. Besides, there are good and less good ways of reacting, however worthy the cause.

Monday 25 February 2013

Pretending to like poetry

There are many reasons why people might say they like a poem, but if someone says they like a poem of yours, think twice before asking them why - it's likely to be embarrassing for both of you. The odds are that inter-personal expectations of behaviour affect what people say more than the desire for aesthetic authenticity. This isn't easy to prove, but if everyone who said they liked a poem read the book that the poem came from (or even bought it) the world would be a very different place.

How much does the public - or even poetry audiences - understand about poems?

  • Jon Stone wrote on his blog "I'm still not sure, when I look around at poetry audiences, how many really notice or care about texture or music, and how many are jonesing for their next hit of clarity"
  • Wayne Burrows in his Thumbscrew article suggests that "'Most people', quite simply, don’t know about poetry".
  • Housman wrote "I am convinced that most readers, when they think they are admiring poetry, are deceived by inability to analyse their sensations, and that they are really admiring, not the poetry of the passage before them, but something else in it, which they like better than poetry".
  • Harold Munro wrote "The public, as a whole, does not demand or appreciate the pure expression of beauty. Its cultured members expect to find in poetry, if anything, repose from material and nervous anxiety; an apt or chiselled phrase strokes the appetites and tickles the imagination. The more general public merely enjoys its platitudes and truisms jerked on to the understanding in line and rhyme; truth put into metre sounds overwhelmingly true".
  • In the Rialto they said that "During a recent research project into reading habits conducted at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, a cross-section of the public nominated poetry to be the most annoying category of book currently published .... after a sustained period of reading poems, thirty six complained of headaches or migraine, twenty-seven suffered indigestion, and two became argumentative resulting in violent exchange .... eighty-two of the hundred people tested did fall asleep for prolonged periods at some point during their reading of poetry"

If anything, I think that experienced poetry-readers (even reviewers and judges) have more reason to dissemble. If they don't understand/like something that for career, personal or reputation reasons they feel they should praise (e.g. Rilke's poems), what else can they do?

A combination of ambiguous statements and use of the Forer effect can effectively mask blind spots and inconvenient opinions (the Forer effect - used by fortune tellers - is when a person who's described in a phrase that could be applied to many people, think that it's especially applicable to themselves). How about "A sensitive, controlled writer"? Or a writer "with understated insight"? Suggesting that a work has "subtle irony" (or subtle anything, because "subtle" can mean "just a bit of") is safe, as is "deceptively deep" or "repays rereading". Then there are the unfalsifiable phrases that one might find in wine reviews - "muscular yet silky".

Friday 22 February 2013

Some short-story book suggestions

I've looked back through the write-ups I've put online of short-story collections. Here are collections that I'd most recommend to others - sometimes because of a particular story or two, sometimes because of the variety and general quality, sometimes because they're especially "good of their type".

Sunday 17 February 2013

The return of the short story?

Is the short story making a comeback in the US? See the New York Times' Good Fit for Today’s Little Screens: Short Stories and Clifford Garstang's response. Charles May's why some short story writers don't want to write novels is worth a read too. The points they make are that

  • Novelists new and established are now producing collections
  • Specialists like George Saunders are gaining respect
  • The way that the internet killed the music album has helped people accept the short story (Kindle Singles).

But then Salon published Sorry, the short story boom is bogus. See also Charles E. May's comments.

I've seen few signs of recovery in the UK. The National short story award doesn't help a whole lot. I'm glad that Salt is producing a Best British Stories anthology each year, and that Flash is making inroads (e.g. there's a Bridport prize for it).

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Experimentation and Conformity

You feel jaded, fed up of writing the same old stuff. You realise that you re-use plots and techniques, that you're writing self-parody. So you decide to experiment.

I sometimes write things I neither like nor understand. Maybe my powers of criticism and appreciation have fallen behind my imagination. Maybe what I've written is a Hopeful Monster, its stubby appendages the wings of future generations. Maybe what I think is unfinished (a mere sketch or draft) can be treated as a finished work (there are precedents for this in Art and Evolution). Time and amassed criticism might eventually conclude whether the pieces are dead ends, indulgences, Ugly Ducklings or discoveries.

Though I liked Jon McGregor's This Isn't The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You (with its deletions, repetitions, one-sentence stories, etc) less than his glorious So many ways to begin, my admiration of his work didn't lessen - it's good that he tries new things out. Ditto my reaction to Tania Hershman's more recent pieces in "My Mother was an upright piano" - reviewed by Jim Murdoch. Readers need to learn how best to deal with these pieces, perhaps coming to some kind of concensus. For those of us with far fewer readers and less time, evaluation of our non-standard pieces is hard. I tend to pass the buck to magazine editors.

Of course, what's experimental for you may be old hat to others. Maybe you're escaping from private clichés only to indulge in public ones.

On The Awful Truth Helena Nelson lists 27 "recurring Contemp Po features". Mike Young lists 41 more on Moves in Contemporary Poetry.

Personal affectations are what help identify you, they're part of your personality, your voice. If you start exploring without the means to assess what you're doing, without awareness of what others have already done, you might end up lost, with only a pile of rubbish as proof of your efforts. Public fashions and mannerisms can constitute a style (e.g. Mannerism). Avoiding fashionable traits may merely tempt you to use unfashionable ones, or to use plainer language (itself a trait).

Awareness of one's habits and of contemporary fashions is probably a good idea long term, though it can be stultifying at first. Using these features consciously and judiciously should be our aim. As Eliot wrote - "We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time".

Friday 1 February 2013

Literary Salon

On Jan 30th I did a talk for the Leamington Spa Literary Salon, in Leamington's Real Tennis club, which is in the city centre. We have a court in Cambridge, but I've never been. Before the talk I had a chance to watch a few points being played - looks like a mix of tennis and squash.

I read 2 poems from "Moving Parts" and 2 stories (one from "By All Means") to an audience of 40 or so, talked about creating characters (the risks of using family, etc), and tried to provoke a discussion about the state of poetry and short stories in the UK, especially regarding sales. I said that a long time ago all literature was poetry but now it's barely read. Though cultural people are polite about it, they don't feel obliged to read the latest poetry book in the way that they'd watch a film or read a talked-about novel. My limiting definition of poetry quite rightly came into the discussion.

I tried to approach it rather like an upmarket, cultural stand-up gig (indeed, I was followed by a stand-up comedian/ artist, who was jolly). Having read about how stand-ups can have bad experiences, I was rather apprehensive about dealing with an unknown audience. It was the first talk of that type that I've done - useful practise. On How much should writers charge for events? it suggests fees of £150 but the groups I know couldn't cope with that (Jeffrey Archer spoke to our local writers group for nothing), and anyway it was good to see so many people coming out for the evening. See An evening of short stories, poetry and comedy for another write-up.

Wednesday 30 January 2013

Depth and Accessibility

On Eratosphere's Musing on Mastery forum last year there was an interesting discussion on "Depth and Accessibility". Here are some extracts -

Alder Ellis -

  • It might be interesting to survey the history of criticism to see when "depth" became the main denotation of scale or extra dimension of meaningfulness. It seems to me it used to be "height" - i.e., "sublimity."
  • In a rationalizing context (characteristic of criticism) the only difference between "depth" and "surface" is the time or effort it takes to achieve an understanding of it. Once the "depths" are understood, they are no longer depths, they too are surfaces. But of course the poems we value most highly (or deeply) are rarely if ever poems we fully understand.

Chris Childers -

  • In general, I tend to find 'depth' in surfaces that are initially a little opaque, that demand a little more work but invite one in under the surface.
  • As opposed to sublimity, "depth" is a largely subjective notion; Alder Ellis associates it aptly with a "psychologizing bias." Another way of putting it is that "depth" is internal while "sublimity" is external; depth leads down into our own abysses while sublimity scales the heights of the human spirit.
  • In my view, psychological depth is the proper opposite of sublimity. However, poetic depth has to do with the construction of a poem: aspects that pull the reader out of the temporal main stream of the verse, under its surface, or beyond it, and invite her to contemplations of another sort.

Me -

I like to think I write for the intelligent layperson: doctors, solicitors, etc - people who give Tate Modern, art-house film, or the latest highbrow novel a chance. I try to be reader-friendly. If I can, I offer fall-back options when I use allusions, or I spell things out. However, there are problems with both of these strategies.

  • If one offers a non-allusive alternative, readers (even those who might have got the allusion) might only see the most obvious interpretation. They might feel that they "understand" sufficiently to continue reading, unimpressive though the phrase may seem. If they'd been puzzled they might have googled (or read the notes). The friendly surface obscures the allusive "depth"
  • Another problem is that the elegance of the poem may be compromised for the sake of those who'd miss the allusions. I don't want to have to put "Mars (the Roman god of war)" in a poem.

After years of publishing in small mags I realised that only other writers (if that) are likely to read my stuff, so why risk compromises? Nowadays, I often don't, rationalising thus

  • Just because I'm uncompromising in some poems, it doesn't mean I can't be more accommodating in others
  • Not all a poem's allusions need to be understood. I think the writers of the Frasier TV series were happy to slip in jokes that only a minority would get - not all sitcoms work that way though
  • It's easy nowadays to put companion notes on a website

Sunday 20 January 2013

Forthcoming UK story competitions, 2013

Here are some competitions you may be interested in
CompetitionWordsDeadline1st prizeFeeExtrasInfo
Grace Dieu2000 28th Feb £500£5rules
Mslexia 2200 19th Mar£2000£10women only rules
West Sussex300031st Mar£200£5rules
Exeter3000 31st Mar£250£4rules
Flash 50050031st Mar£300£5rules
Yellow Room 1000 31st Mar£100 £4 rules
short Fiction6000 31st Mar£500£10 for 2free magazinerules
Bristol3000 30th April£1000£8anthology chancerules
Bridport5000 31st May£5000£8rules
Yeovil2000 31st May£500£6rules