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".