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 The pamphlet remains unpublished.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"