Thursday, 31 May 2012

Poetry Review: a guest at the feast

I’ll be guest-editing the autumn issue of Poetry Review, the journal of the Poetry Society in London – following the summer issue edited by George Szirtes, out in June, and preceding the winter issue, to be edited by Bernardine Evaristo.

Guest editing: entrance and exit, skipping the whole business of proposing a manifesto and then having to stick to that for years, more. (Should we have guest prime ministers? Guest football managers?) As a guest, it’s not for me to knock down load-bearing walls or turn the back bedroom into a jacuzzi, but I can perhaps rearrange the furniture a little. For anyone interested in whether the autumn issue will have a theme or a slant or an angle, I’ll just mention than when, a couple of years ago, in conversation with a TS Eliot shortlisted poet, I referred to Dalkey Archive (‘one of the best little publishers in the world’: Lezard, Guardian) and she said ‘Who?’, my heart sank. She, if she’d mentioned a particular singer to me and I’d blanked, might have had the same reaction. None of us knows it all, none of us can even keep track. But as well as poetry there is prose and art and film and music and theatre going on out there, and while some poets are deeply interested in other art forms, and may even work in them, I do often suspect that many never raise their eyes from poetry books. With the result that the poetry world can feel like a ghetto. I’d like to relax a few border controls.

Today I went into the office, and brought home a sackful of poems. So many. This editoring thing is an honour, I knew that, and I intend it to be a pleasure, but only as I start reading do I realise how humbling, I think that’s the word, it will be. There are good poems, plenty of those, and some that are more than good.* More intriguingly, among a batch of half a dozen so-sos there may be one that surprises (and this is one of the things magazines, as opposed to books, are for: little gems, and never mind the rest of the work, the oeuvre). Even in a poem that doesn’t work as a whole (difficult, hugely so; why else would we be bothering) there is often a line, a turn of the words, that takes me aback.

* Who’s saying so? Well, in this case, me. It is, for the next several weeks, my job. For the first time, ever, I am being paid to exercise judgement. I bear in mind, always, the words of a minor character in War and Peace: ‘Where there is judgement, there is always injustice.’ We take that on board, we live with it. ‘You just do the best you can’ – that’s a quote from a piece on editing that featured in the first draft of this post, which was attempting to answer the question ‘What does an editor do?’, but it strayed off-track so I’ll keep it for the next post.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Product placement

Just the second post of the month: am I falling behind?

On the Book Trust website there’s a list of short story competitions, each with their special rules (maximum word lengths, deadlines for entries, etc). My favourite is this: ‘must include Italian women in some way’. Elsewhere, there’s a form I could fill in for a week’s residency in a luxury hotel in Sardinia, the condition being that I’d have to write a story set in Cagliari. One story could do for both, I’m thinking, but then remember that a few posts back I said I’d never written anything to commisssion and probably couldn’t, and this would be a bit like that.

Another thing I said I hadn’t done is teach creative writing. Given that almost everyone else – of my generation of writers, the poets especially – has done this, I’m beginning to feel like the one virgin in the whole school year. I talked about this with a friend: we agreed that we didn’t have enough confidence in our own practice to teach, and that we’d go into it thinking that most of the students were probably better than us, so we’d feel there under false pretences.

This is all a bit priggish, words wrapped around my scepticism about the whole concept of ‘creative writing’. (This morning, I heard a writer tell other writers that she taught creative writing ‘with an ambivalent attitude’. A kind of disclaimer: don’t expect exactly what it says on the tin.) Loosening up, I’m happy to believe those who tell me that there are some excellent teachers out there; and it’s really more about enabling than ‘teaching’, and magic can happen; and what students learn from teachers is at least as much about attitudes and passion as it is about particular skills.

So maybe I should stop muttering on the edge and plunge in. Starting with a short story that will ‘include Italian women in some way’. Coincidentally, I’ve just finished reading Among Women Only by Cesare Pavese, which is about nothing but Italian women, and it’s wonderful.

Monday, 14 May 2012


A little elp is never amiss.

Dream last night: first day in a new job and the best bit was the canteen, in which the food was mostly Spanish and people did turns, e.g. an opera singer at the bar. Then I went for a walk up a winding road with Seamus Heaney, and we found some old buses and coaches in a kind of bus graveyard and people were playing chess inside them, and Mr Heaney showed me his new work, which was a sequence incorporating poems, short bits of fiction, and paragraphs of memoir.

Employers etc complaining that the young don’t bother to turn up on time for their low-paid/unpaid work – but if work was a more congenial place to be, with opera singers in the canteen? The work problem is not just that there aren’t jobs but that most jobs are soul-less and numbingly tedious.

The recorded voice in the lift at Belsize Park tube station – ‘You have now reached the lower level. Exit, turn right and . . .’ – is 1950s BBC Home Service announcer’s, perfectly preserved.

The Leveson Inquiry: a man called Murdoch who owns TV stations I don’t watch, newspapers I don’t read (the TLS, admittedly, is a little problem here), is a person I’m interested in? Rich and powerful people in one another’s pockets, telling lies in public, riding horses that do not belong to them, is news, is scandal? Plenty things more worth sorting out than that; that so much time, money, attention is devoted to this is exactly why so many don’t bother voting. (Meanwhile, that a couple of writers I’ve been reading – Alfred Hayes, Renata Adler – are currently out of print is a scandal.)