Thursday, 23 October 2014

The threesome ones

Above, a completely gorgeous short poetry book, At Thurgarton Church (a single poem in 29 five-line stanzas) by George Barker, with drawings by Barker too. Trigram Press, 1969. I bought it in the summer of 1970, when I was working on a farm in north Norfolk, planting potatoes in a field that surrounded the church at Thurgarton, so at least one of the names on the cover I recognised. I asked the farmer if he knew of a poet living in the area, and found my way to Bintry House, where Barker had got the lawnmower out: our first lines were shouted above its noise, while Barker made up his mind whether I was worth switching the thing off for. Barker was the first ‘real poet’ I met. He made, to put it mildly, an impression. A year or so later, on a weekend when I went back to see him, there was an evening involving wine, fire, argument erupting into violence, flight and return.

Other poetry books I bought around that time, or slightly earlier: crucially, Michael Roberts’s The Faber Book of Modern Verse, either 2nd edition (1951) or 3rd (1965); which I stumbled through, teaching myself how to read (there was nothing of this sort at school) and usually coming up short, but there must have been something in there I was curious about; the Penguin Modern Poets, the threesome ones, and some Penguin Modern European poets; Roy Fisher’s Collected Poems, the Fulcrum edition with the street-party photo on the front. I wasn’t a very social person at the time; I had anorexia in my teens. I can’t now recall whether I was writing poems myself (I may have been starting; I published a first and forgettable collection in 1977). It, a lot of it, was the geeky equivalent of behind-the-bicycle-sheds.

Cut to today, when the TSE Prize shortlist is announced. And last year’s list, and the list before: people on there whose work has been part of my life, but in most cases I’m not going to get round to reading their new books, I know this, because of this feeling I have that I’ve already read them and there is so much new work that interests me coming through and time is short and anyway I’m more interested these days in fiction. Unfair, yes. I think I’d like to tease this out in something longer. People coming through harder and faster; the shortening of writers’ career spans, unless they’re among the blessed; the vanishing of the ‘midlist’; the mediation (mediafication, mediafiction?) of poetry in the marketplace, tending to favour the safe bet, the serious white males. (I’m one of those myself: it’s an observation, not a complaint.) I thought the Forward Prizes this year represented a shift, a kind of catching-up (a difference from what prizes often do: stick with what you know, leave it to the next year), and still think this, there’s been a shift, and the TSE list is, well, dull; it is hampered by the logistics of 40 per cent on the list being automatic, as PBS seasonal choices chosen by an old guard. (Might they be freed up by having another category, a lifetime-achievement thing? Even, given the acceleration, a decade-achievement thing?) In my sixties, I’m now old guard myself. It’s not a bad place to be: too late to worry about making a career of any kind. Meanwhile, I trust there’s still space for people working on farms and liking books.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Something for the weekend

On Sunday J. O. Morgan will be performing/reciting the whole text of At Maldon in company with the actor Ishbel McFarlane at the Dundee Literary Festival. If Dundee is reachable, I think you should go. Here is Helena Nelson of HappenStance Press on Morgan’s delivery of the poem at this year’s StAnza festival: ‘I have never heard anything like it. I had heard him read before but I have never heard anything like this. For the first time in my life I grasped the living concept of the epic – I inhabited it. J O Morgan took us inside that terrible, beautiful, ancient story of what men do, and held us there. Time stopped.’

Also on Sunday, a new poem by Dan O’Brien derived from his continuing collaboration with the war reporter Paul Watson will be in the Sunday Times. More new War Reporter poems will be in the first issue of Sonofabook, CBe’s magazine (website page up next month). Dan O’Brien’s new book Scarsdale is available now from the website; official publication day will be 7 November, when he is reading at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival as last year’s winner of the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize for War Reporter.

On 11 November, Armistice Day, Morgan and O’Brien will again be running parallel. Morgan’s At Maldon is shortlisted for the Saltire Poetry Book of the Year Award, announced on that day. O’Brien will be reading from War Reporter and Scarsdale at The Round Church, Cambridge, CB2 1UB (free admission).

Friday, 3 October 2014


There are times when you wouldn’t want to be known as a collaborator: you could get strung up from a lamp post. Sleeping with the enemy carries risks: think of the mess that undercover police operatives can get into when infiltrating activist groups, or of Ang Lee’s film Lust, Caution.

Even in literature, the transgression of boundaries that collaboration involves – the notion of the ‘individual author’ becoming unstable – makes critics uneasy. But it happens: Pound’s involvement in Eliot’s Waste Land was crucial; Conrad and Ford collaborated on three novels, Stevenson collaborated on plays with W. E. Henley and on fiction with Lloyd Osbourne. In contemporary poetry, the movement from page to stage has prompted new collaborative work (such as The Debris Field, ‘devised, written and performed by Simon Barraclough, Isobel Dixon and Chris McCabe’). And on the page too, I think collaborations are becoming more frequent. (Writing is – or can be if you want it to be – so much more a social activity than it was pre-internet.) An example of an extreme form of collaboration between Elizabeth Mikesch and May-Lan Tan – in which the writers ‘vandalise each other’s sentences until it’s no longer clear who has written what’, even to themselves – is here, in The Quietus.

The first issue of the Sonofabook magazine will contain work by two pairs of collaborators.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Goldsmiths Prize shortlist: stickers!

For a publisher the size of CBe, that Will Eaves’s The Absent Therapist is on the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist, announced today, is BIG. Even if it doesn’t send sales rocketing, even if it may mean nothing financially. (Ken Edwards of Reality Street may have felt similar when Philip Terry’s Tapestry was shortlisted last year.)

Last year’s shortlist was almost universally (well, in the little universe I inhabit: a universe that was tired, tired, tired of the Booker) applauded. That the eventual and deserved winner was Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing – a novel that had spent a decade being turned down by every major publisher in the land; a novel that did what it had to, irrespective of the rules of the game, and went on to win a clutch of other prizes and is now garnering reviews-to-kill-for in the US – confirmed the Goldsmiths as necessary. The timing was immaculate: book and prize, in its inaugural year, seemed made for each other.

This year the first-day responses to the Goldsmiths shortlist have been more subdued. The overlap between certain books on the Goldsmiths and the Booker lists (long, short, it’s not worth checking, it’s not important) was noted. One blogger has asked for a clearer definition of terms: Booker ‘the best novel’, Goldsmiths ‘to reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form’. ‘Best’ is huh, is meaningless. ‘Breaks the mould’, you can see what they’re getting at, even if not exactly, which is the whole point. Prizes, definitions. The books come first, and then a little catching up (a little scurrying around, a little re-alignment) of how to notice them.

Yesterday night, the Forward Prizes for poetry were awarded; poetry is another camp, in which one of my feet is planted, and the Forward things are top (or go head-to-head with the TS Eliot, slugging it out year on year) in that camp, and I think they made good choices (Kei Miller, Liz Berry). I say I think because I haven’t actually read either of the books. I say good choices because of the relief of knowing that it’s not John Burnside, Sharon Olds, Simon Armitage, Don Paterson, Robin Robertson, again.

Which is deeply unfair, because those named names are excellent poets. (Not that I’d guarantee to publish them, if they were reduced to coming my way: there’s the feeling, not just mine, that I’ve read them already.) (Same goes for a number of submissions that ping in the in-box: wonderful writing, but in a mode I already know.)

There’s a demographic problem (people living longer), and literary careers going on and on while the next and then the next generation come to the party, and mainstream publishers having tight little lists, and the pressure building and ground opening up for the smaller publishers, not to mention online, and the ways in which people write also opening up, and one of the most interesting things about the Goldsmiths prize is the expectations put upon it.

Meanwhile, you can buy Will Eaves’s The Absent Therapist here and I’ll post it tomorrow, free delivery in UK. (I collected a new print run at 7 a.m. yesterday from the printer, stickered them and then lugged boxes over to the warehouse. I can’t think that there’s ever been a more interesting time to be publishing.)

Monday, 29 September 2014

Free advertising for independent bookshops

When I collected the first four CBe titles from the printer back in the autumn of 2007 I had no distributor, no trade representation, no mailing list, and the authors were all unknowns. I put sample copies in a bag and trekked around some of the independent bookshops in London. One bookseller read one of the books overnight and phoned next day with an order for 40 copies. Crockatt & Powell (remember them?) enthused about the books on their blog and also ordered. We were in business, almost.

The good will, experience and enthusiasm of independent booksellers are undervalued and underused by most publishers.

The new magazine being started by CBe – more details here – will be carrying paid-for adverts. Almost no independent bookseller has a budget for advertising. For the first issue of the magazine (and maybe others: we’ll see) I’m therefore offering a limited number of free quarter-page ads to independent bookshops. Two or three or four pages of adverts for good bookshops will be a good thing in itself; and maybe, even, the bookshops will stock the magazine. Any bookshop that is interested, please contact me on Files (82 x 53 mm; high-res pdf or jpeg) will be needed before the end of October; or a bookshop could simply send me the information they’d like the ad to carry, plus a logo if available or other artwork, and CBe will make up the ad.

Monday, 15 September 2014

New Dan O’Brien; and ‘the necessary drudgery of the novelist’

Dan O’Brien’s new poetry collection Scarsdale will be launched at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in early November, where he’s reading as the winner of the 2013 Aldeburgh Fenton First Collection Prize for War Reporter. You can do these things by the book – which involves having blurb and cover and proofs in place many months before publication (and in time for the submission deadlines for the PBS recommendations, etc) – or you can think, a few weeks from now the author will be over from Los Angeles and reading in front of a large and generous audience, so let’s wing it. Scarsdale is a very different book from War Reporter: it’s home-grown, for a start, though of course home can be as conflicted a place as any war zone.

On Friday of this week, I and May-Lan Tan will be reading at the Cork International Short Story Festival. I haven’t been to Ireland for a couple of decades, at least. I’m excited about this.

May-Lan will be reading, I assume, from her CBe book Things to Make and Break and maybe from her chapbook Girly. I might be reading from The Manet Girl, published by Salt last year. More likely, the pages in front of me will be from what is resulting from finding my failure to write a particular story more interesting than the story itself.

As a lapsed poet, I’m still finding my way in fiction. I remember an agent’s note, handwritten in the margins of the printout of my first attempt: ‘Where are they? The reader needs to see them.’ They – the characters – were in the Golborne Road, as it happens, which is at the tag end of Portobello Road and is probably worth describing (junk stalls, caf├ęs, Moroccan street food) but I got no enjoyment at all from this kind of writing (and if I’m bored, then God help the reader). I’m aware that good descriptive writing isn’t just scene-setting, but it still felt more duty than play.

Virginia Woolf in her 1924 essay ‘Character in Fiction’ has fun with Arnold Bennett’s descriptive writing, of which she quotes a chunk and adds: ‘One line of insight would have done more than all those lines of description; but let them pass as the necessary drudgery of the novelist … he is trying to hypnotise us into the belief that, because he has made a house, there must be a person living there.’ Into the category of necessary drudgery I’d add ‘characterisation’ and ‘plot’ and most of the other chapter titles in the how-to-write-a-novel books – but a lovely thing about the novel is that these things aren’t really necessary at all. Short-cutting, I’ll point to Gabriel Josipovici’s ‘Writing, Reading and the Study of Literature’, his inaugural lecture at the University of Sussex in 1986 (included in his The Singer on the Shore, Carcanet, 2006), in which he recalls writing his first novel: ‘It was not that that I didn’t like the forms of description I was using; I didn’t like any form of description. What’s more, I suddenly realised, I didn’t need it. What had happened was that I had adopted not just the tone and mannners of every book I had ever read, I had also adopted their assumptions … I had made a fantastic discovery, you see. I had discovered that I did not have to do do what I didn’t want to do to, and at the same time that I could do something which a moment before I had had no idea I could do.’ This is liberating, in the way that is characteristic of my own favourite novels: oh, so you don’t have to do all the high-cheekbones, blustery-weather stuff, you can do it another way.

Ninety years on from VW’s essay, the market into which novels get pitched is still deeply conservative: the choosing of what gets published, reviewed, wins prizes. But the novel is not ruled by the market. Kate Webb, reviewing Every Day is for the Thief in the TLS in July this year, suggested that Teju Cole’s work ‘occupies a now common ground of uncertainty in twenty-first-century writing, blending fiction, memoir, observation and conjecture’. Hari Kunzru, reviewing Ben Lerner’s 10:04 in the New York Times earlier this month, suggested that the book ‘belongs to an emerging genre, the novel after Sebald, its 19th-century furniture of plot and character dissolved into a series of passages, held together by occasional photographs and a subjectivity that hovers close to (but is never quite identical with) the subjectivity of the writer’. The precedents for this date back decades, but there seems now to be momentum, and this too I find liberating.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Free Verse: The Poetry Book Fair 2014

Top pic, near top right, the CBe table – no one behind it because I was, uh, at the opposite side of the room taking this photo. It took time to get back to it. Bottom pic, view from the CBe table. All those people. One person mentioned in passing, as if this was a perfectly normal thing to do, that she’d travelled from County Cork to London just for this event. Someone else I’d never met before offered to buy me lunch. There were readings, continuous through the day, both in a separate room in the venue and in the square outside, and then in a pub in the evening, but no speeches telling us what we were here for and why, no need. It felt like a good deed in a naughty world.