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.