Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Robinson: a rare photo

Here is Robinson doing exactly what the second Weldon Kees quote in the post below says he is doing, admiring the elephant.


The pages in the books are blank,
The books that Robinson has read. That is his favorite chair,
Or where the chair would be if Robinson were here.

All day the phone rings. It could be Robinson
Calling. It never rings when he is here.

(Weldon Kees, ‘Robinson’)

Jack Robinson, author of Days and Nights in W12 and Recessional, didn’t come out of just nowhere. Robinson is in Céline’s Journey to the End of Night (1932), a sort of alter-ego of Bardamu, the main autobiographical character. He returns, also alter-ego-ish, in the poems of Weldon Kees (1914–55), who himself didn’t so much die as disappear: his car was found abandoned near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and there have been reported sightings. Kees’s Robinson reappears in poems by Simon Armitage. In Chris Petit’s 1993 novel Robinson he’s a a Soho fixer, dealer and pornographer. He’s back again in three films by Patrick Keiller, London (1994), Robinson in Space (1997; the above image from this film) and Robinson in Ruins (2010), in which – quote from the Tate website on a current exhibition at Tate Britain entitled ‘The Robinson Institute’ – ‘a fictional, unseen scholar Robinson undertakes exploratory journeys around England’. (An LRB piece on that exhibition describes Keiller’s practice as combining ‘extremely laconic imagery … with more or less ironised, more or less fictional, increasingly erudite voiceovers’ – which could also apply to Days and Nights in W12.) I doubt we’ve seen the last of Robinson. From Kees, ‘Aspects of Robinson’:

Robinson walking in the Park, admiring the elephant.
Robinson buying the Tribune, Robinson buying the Times. Robinson
Saying, “Hello. Yes, this is Robinson. Sunday
At five? I’d love to. Pretty well. And you?”

Friday, 27 July 2012

Publishing days

About time I praised the postman, and the whole UK postal service behind him. On Wednesday afternoon I posted a copy of BBB’s White Sheets to an address in Wales, on Thursday morning I got an email from the addressee: ‘It’s very good and I’m ½ way through it.’ For various reasons Royal Mail – like the NHS, the schools, you name it – seems to be generally viewed as in crisis. But it works. And my postman is friendly and so are the folk at the post office and as far as I know the system has never, ever, lost anything I’ve sent or been sent. And of course it’s responsible, in an earlier incarnation, for arguably the best poetry commission of the last century, Auden’s 1936 ‘Night Mail’ – link to YouTube here.

Reviews. There’ll be many people who’ll be disappointed that their book isn’t reviewed in the autumn issue of Poetry Review. It’s odd how most authors assume a review will be a good one. The one review to date, in the The Warwick Review, of Miha Mazzini’s The German Lottery, isn’t going to sell many copies: ‘. . . an interesting comic novel. And it will make an excellent film.’ It’s worth more than that.

More than a year and a half after its publication, J. O. Morgan’s Long Cuts has a review in this week’s TLS, concluding thus: ‘Long Cuts is a book of human connections and missed opportunities, of love and missed opportunities to show love, and is as compressed, free-flowing, rambunctious, tender and at times unapologetically unrefined as its predecessor.’ (The predecessor being, of course, Natural Mechanical.) Much better. Thank you, Rory Waterman.

Will that review help to sell the book? What does sell copies? What is the meaning of life? I’m ticking the don’t-know box. Prize shortlistings? Last year, when D. Nurkse’s Voices over Water was shortlisted for the main Forward prize along with some well-known names, Waterstones immediately phoned the warehouse and ordered the 90 in stock and I was scurrying around. This year, when Beverley Bie Brahic’s White Sheets was also shortlisted for the main Forward prize, but among (apart from Geoffrey Hill) some far less-known names, no phone call, no surge in sales. Booksellers (whose job is to sell, not read) tend to like lists of familiar names, maybe spiced with the occasional unknown.

This morning I took two boxes of books to the Central warehouse in Hackney Wick, across a canal from the Olympics site. A couple of police cars were cruising the empty streets, a man drunk at 8 a.m. was looking for someone to argue with. Quiet days.

I arrived back home as the postman was delivering the programme for the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in November, which will feature CBe poets Nancy Gaffield (winner of last year’s Aldeburgh First Collection Prize) and, over from the US, D. Nurkse. Also Christopher Reid and a screening of the film of The Song of Lunch, first published in book form by CBe. Aldeburgh, like the post, works. White Sheets on the Forward shortlist comes out of Christopher Reid and Beverley Bie Brahic happening to have breakfast together in Aldeburgh a few years ago, and the name Francis Ponge coming up in conversation, which led to BBB’s CBe Ponge book and then her Apollinaire book and then . . .

Friday, 20 July 2012

‘We’ll get back to you’

Things are bubbling along. The autumn issue of Poetry Review is pretty well sealed up: a tight fit, more than tight, even after cuts and slashes. Flyers etc for the Free Verse bookfair will be done next week, as also the sorting out of the readings programme for that day – and here again, because there is no possible way that all the proposals for readings put forward by the presses can possibly be fitted in, there will have to be – as I’m sure Cameron has said, and Brown before him, and Blair too – tough choices. A lot of people will be disappointed.

Extras at the book fair (none of these will eat into the time available for the readings) will include workshops run by Daljit Nagra and Nancy Campbell, put on in association with the Poetry School and held in the sublime setting of the upstairs café at Candid Arts, the bookfair venue. Links to those here and here. Also (not finally confirmed, but hoping) a set by Brooke Sharkey, who at last year’s book fair in Exmouth Market came in from busking on the street to go up on the stage.

CBe is pleased and proud this week to learn that Beverley Bie Brahic’s White Sheets is shortlisted for the 2012 Forward Prize. If you go to the foot of the Books page on the CBe website, you can buy White Sheets and Brahic’s translations of Francis Ponge and of Apollinaire all for £20.

The Forward shortlists, both for the main prize and the first-collection prize, have been greeted with some delight and surprise. One Faber book on the first-collection list; nothing from Cape or Picador. This may be timely. There’s an arrogance in certain places that could do with taking a knock. Wanting the Free Verse book fair to be inclusive, to show the whole range, we invited Picador, Cape and Faber. Picador eventually replied, and it looks like they’ll be there. Emails to Cape were not replied to; eventually I got through to someone in sales who was interested but said the table hire would have to come out of the marketing and not the sales budget, and gave me another number; despite messages left on an answerphone, the trail went dead. With Faber, more unanswered emails; I’ve been asking them since before Christmas; they’d need to have a ‘meeting’, they eventually said, before they could decide; that meeting still hasn’t taken place, or if it has they haven’t bothered to tell me.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Status report (Poetry Review, autumn issue)

You start a new job and to begin with you’re a little befuddled because the where, how, who and when (now) cloud the what, never mind the why, and maybe you force things a bit and in doing so make mistakes, of course you do, but in time the wheres & the hows etc recede and the what begins to reveal itself, the thing you had been stumbling towards without it ever being clearly in view, with the why in tow.

That’s where I am. There’s a schedule for this thing and the first date on it is today, 10 July: ‘handover poems’. Poems have been handed over. Reviews and essays have been handed over too (well, most of them). With the result that I’ve spent much of this afternoon doing things I haven’t done, digging down into the layers that for weeks and weeks have been covered by poems and finding (on the desk) bills that should have been paid ages ago, and (on the window sill) books that have been eaten by snails.

Pains: saying no to certain poems. There is only so much room; there may in fact be not enough room for everything I’ve said yes too, but we’ll deal with that little crisis when it announces itself. Joys: asking for material (mainly for the reviews/essays, but for the poetry pages too) and receiving what I hadn’t quite expected to receive. I tend to want to do everything, and therefore for this magazine to do everything too, while knowing it can’t, and one of the incoming contributions unwittingly gave me a perspective on how to resolve that in my own head, so that I’m happy now with both the what and the why.

Meanwhile, up above is a photo (of Brighton graffiti) by Ken Garland of which I recently bought a print. I floated this as an image for the flyers for the Free Verse book fair but was told it was too scary, it would put people off. I’m not so sure; I think she may be having a very good time indeed. But more attention to the book fair is now needed. As for the Poetry Review issue, an awful lot of trust is involved (others of me, me of me too) and some of it will turn out to have been misplaced, but it will be fine, will be more than fine.

Thursday, 5 July 2012


I’ve just had my eyes washed by some emotional joy at the wit & grit & skill & passion of some teenage poets from Leeds – in the film We Are Poets, which focuses on a made trip by a group of them to poetry slam event in the US. For the pre-title slow-motion sequence with voice-over, see here.

Meanwhile, back in the polite little, tight little world of books, this: someone went into a branch of Blackwells, seeking J. O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical. It wasn’t on the shelves, even though the system said it was. And the second book, Long Cuts? They explained that they don’t order a second book unless the first book has sold a certain numbers of copies in a year. The search for the first continued; it was found; it had fallen off the back of the shelf, so was invisible to any browser. Moral: persist, insist. What you’re looking for may not be visible, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

On Dai Vaughan, and editing

An obituary of Dai Vaughan – author of Sister of the Artist, published by CBe in February – is in today’s Independent: see here. Another piece, mainly on Dai’s work as a film editor, here.

Meanwhile, I might warm a little – doubtful, but who knows – to Alan Sugar if just occasionally, after firing one of his would-be apprentices, he’d admit that on a different day he might have fired a different one, with just as good/bad reasons. This week I’m making the final selection of poems for the autumn Poetry Review. Wobbly heaps; return envelopes coming un-paperclipped and falling off the back of the desk. That’s the least of it.

There’s a yes pile and a no pile, and there were two maybe piles, now amalgamated into one but it still keeps changing shape and size. Poems call across to one another. One from the maybe pile veers towards the no, then suddenly switches direction and heads for the yes. They are laughing at me. The maybe pile is deeply interesting; sometimes, out of pure curiosity, I google a name I’m not familiar with and discover more.

To have the riches of the internet at my fingertips makes the messy process of hard-copy submissions (with covering letters and stamped addressed envelopes for return) seem even more antiquated than it actually is – and also, of course, raises the question of what a slim quarterly print magazine is for, what it can even begin to attempt to do. When photography arrived, some folk thought painting was dead, and they were wrong. Neither is online/print an either/or. The internet doesn’t make Poetry Review redundant; it does require it to think about its function, about what things it can do that the net can’t, and having this transitional phase of a series of guest-editors may be timely.

Dai V, incidentally, was (as well as a novelist and poet) a film editor. Among several tributes quoted in the Independent obituary, there is this: ‘No matter how hard I studied just how he had achieved such a perfectly natural flow, rhythm and emotional development in a sequence, it remained somehow beyond precise comprehension – it was always so simple, unostentatious and yet so perfect.’