Monday, 24 September 2012

Getting dressed

Years ago I photocopied this poem from a magazine. I still like it very much. ‘Half-Sized Violin’ by Yehuda Amichai, translated by Chana Bloch:

I sat in the playgound where I played as a child.
The child went on playing in the sand. His hands went on
making pat-pat, then dig then destroy,
then pat-pat again.

Between the trees that little house is still standing
where the high voltage hums and threatens.
On the iron door a skull and crossbones: another
old childhood acquaintance.

When I was nine they gave me
a half-sized violin and half-sized feelings.

Sometimes I’m still overcome by pride
and a great joy: I already know
how to dress and undress
all by myself.

Today I received a letter from a local company (someone must have tipped them off) that begins: ‘Dear Mr Boyle, Imagine having someone available to help you with day-to-day tasks you struggle with such as cooking, cleaning or getting dressed . . .’

PS – There’s a new review of Andrzej Bursa’s Killing Auntie on the Book Sbob blog. The word missed out in line 3 of the short poem she quotes is ‘bladder’.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Reviews of Brahic and Gaffield

An online review this week of Berverly Bie Brahic’s White Sheets (shortlisted for this year’s Forward Prize): ‘Brahic’s poems are lyrics of various residences. Shifts of place in White Sheets follow her trajectory of living abroad, through French, Italian, American, and Irish locales. Her shifts are more thorough than that, though . . . In addition to poetic shape-shifting, subtle confrontations often lurk deceptively behind the ordinary. The title poem “White Sheets” opens Brahic’s collection, and its epigram, Airstrike hits wedding party, creates tension in what appears to be the everyday – a domestic scene troubled only by the anxiety of one line against the ominous instinctive movements of the woman collecting laundry . . . In some poems, such as “The Annunciations”, a change in point of view may result in intrusion, but Brahic rejoices, as Bellini does, in what is divulged . . . The rhythms of her lines are disturbed almost imperceptibly with dashes, parentheticals, and lacunae as object (or subject) resists. Here as elsewhere, Brahic scrutinizes, offers us a language of post-exposure reparation.’

This week’s TLS has a belated review of Nancy Gaffield’s Tokaido Road, which won last year’s Aldeburgh First Collection Prize: ‘Employing a variety of stanza forms and the prose poem, Tokaido Road invites the reader, poem by delicately delineated poem, to enter the old scenes as well as the poet’s mind and if, at first reading, the poems feel quiet and meditative, we learn to spot each slight ripple of emotion . . . Gaffield’s collection is a fascinating fusion of Western and Eastern art by someone who is respectful of both.’

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Who’d’ve thought?

Congratulations to Salt for the Booker shortlisting of Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse. Half the books on that shortlist are from small independent publishers. Half the books on the Forward Prize shortlists are from ditto.

Cue some generalising statement about the increasing prominence of small presses on the big stages, but I’ll resist that temptation. The joy/frustration of the whole business is its unpredictability. Among the feedback comments on last Saturday’s Free Verse book fair are some pointing out that those publishers with tables on the upper floor were at a disadvantage, as a number of potential buyers never made it upstairs – yet the highest sales so far reported were from an upstairs table. There are comments too about styles of selling, suggesting that it’s not enough for publishers to just lay out the books and then sit behind the table and wait – yet the CBe table, staffed through the whole day by volunteers who hadn’t read the books and couldn’t answer questions, sold far more than last year.

Brooke Sharkey (above), who at last year’s book fair sang to a listening, attentive audience, this year could hardly be heard above the continuing talk and movement. She didn’t mind, she’s used to this. There’ve been times, she says, when she’s sung to an appreciative audience of several hundred, who’ve then bought the music, and then the next day she’s busking and everyone walks straight past.

Q: Which title is third in the rankings of CBe books sold to date in this financial year? A: ‘Not So Barren or Uncultivated’: British Travellers in Finland 1760–1830. Another volume, covering 1830 to 1917, is planned for later this year.

Monday, 10 September 2012

After the book fair

For me, the joy of last year’s event was that no one knew what to expect, and the consequent surprise when it all seemed to work – something that couldn’t be replicated for a repeat show. Does this explain my slight feeling of anticlimax, dissatisfaction? Something of that, something to do with how lousy I am at organising myself – far too much bell-ringing, and checking of watch for the half-hours, with result that I hardly got to graze, even to see, many of the tables, let alone the people behind them. There were particular tables I’d been looking forward to – Like This Press, for one – but I never got round to. Apologies to those people. My loss.

Among the things that worked, I think:

- The volunteers: brilliant, they just sensed what needed doing and got on and did it. It was hugely important that the publishers who made the effort – in many cases a long-range effort, involving hours and hours of travel – weren’t stuck behind their tables all day: a main thing the volunteers were there for was to take up the reins, let the publishers wander. This happened, and could happen more, could be pushed further. (It’s the books that matter, not who’s behind the table; I wasn’t once behind the CBe table myself, not even for a few minutes, but 40 books were sold.) One of the volunteers, unprompted, took a wadge of programmes and went out onto the street to lure strangers: necessary, and brave.

- The venue: the space afforded much better display room for the publishers than last year; on a hot day, the courtyard café space was perfect; the readings room – right size, not blandly functional.

- The range of publishers: as Ross Bradshaw says on his own Five Leaves blog, ACE support enabled us to ‘pay the fares of out of London presses. And this meant many presses that could not have afforded a train fare and stall hire were represented. So as well as being the biggest gathering of presses, this was probably the most representative, with people from Manchester, Norwich, Edinburgh, Hastings, Bristol, Bridgend - everywhere, really, including three from Nottingham.’ And one from Belgium. And A Midsummer Night’s Press, from (I think) New York via Spain, and selling another 40 books.

(Parenthesis: the point was, and still is, the full range. ((Sub-parenthesis: introducing Christopher Reid to open the day, I did manage to stutter the word inimitable, but on the way lost the word I’d wanted: indivisible. Reid has published with OUP, Faber, and with Arete, Rack, Prospero, Ondt & Gracehoper, etc. One world.)) We invited Picador, and got enthusiasm, and they came. We invited Cape: prevarication over whether the table hire should come out of the sales or the marketing budget, and that’s where it stuck. We invited Faber, since before last Christmas: unanswered emails and phone messages, and twice when we got through were told they’d have a meeting and would ‘get back’. Huh. Someone finally phones in late August from one of their branded offshoots, Faber Factory, which represents Bloodaxe and Carcanet as well as Faber, and wants a table, but there’s going to be some difficulty staffing that table, I should understand, because the fair is on a Saturday. Bless.)

Among the things that didn’t work:

- Too much bell-ringing, as I’ve mentioned. We can sort this.

- More people came than last year, many more, but still more would have been good. The more publishers participating, the more there is, as Ross Bradshaw neatly puts it in his blog post, ‘competition for sales’. At the very least, every single person from the growth industry of creative-writing courses has to feel it necessary to come. Has to want to come. (Unless books are bought, publishers kept alive, their work won’t see daylight.)

- The workshops, run by the Poetry School and taking place in the upstairs cafe, were sold out long before the day and though those taking part also called by downstairs, I hope, the workshops were not integrated into the main event.

We’ll be sending out forms asking for feedback from the presses who took part: what was bad, what was good, how much sales, how better, etc.

The photos above are courtesy of Véronique Dubois – see more on Flickr and contact her if you want to use any of them. I’ve an inkling to make the second one the signature photo: for the infant clinging, for the fine red dress, for the lovely Donut Press books in the foreground. Beneath that one, Eddie Linden. The last one shows a buyer getting out her cash while the seller looks bashfully away - many of us are embarrassed by money, while at the same time in desperate need of it.

There are more photos – of wine & ham as well as books & poets – on Helena Nelson’s HappensStance blog. There’s another report on Todd Swift’s Eyewear blog. The latter needs this essential correction: while I’ve been humming old tunes in the background, it was Chrissy Williams who took the lead on organising this year’s book fair, single-handedly battling the railway networks and spurring the whole thing on. She could run the whole country. She has better things to do.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Free Verse 2012: why?

IF independent bookshops were thriving up and down the land; and if Amazon et el – rather than mashing smaller presses in their systems and charging them the earth for the privilege – had some fine-toothed gears to help get their books to readers; and if the internet had an add-on that enabled you browse books in your hands before committing; and if the Net Book Agreement was still in force; and if everyone who sent poems to a press actually bought a book from that press . . .

THEN the book fair might not be needed at all and we could all have a long lie-in tomorrow.

Candid Arts, EC1V 1NQ, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free, the readings too.

Did I mention that there’ll be Spanish ham, and clothespegs, and that Brooke Sharkey, the busker who stepped into last year’s fair and onto the stage, will be back again? And cards too, of drawings including the one above, by Nick Wadley.

They organise these matters better in France and Germany, where laws limiting the discounting of books both restrict the power of companies that deal in mass volumes of sales to overwhelm the smaller fry and also help sustain a wide variety of independent bookshops. In America, doles out grants every year to a large number of small presses and literary groups. In the UK we had Jeremy Hunt, and now we have Maria Miller.

Other things that might help the smaller presses survive:
- book tokens valid for buying from a range of small presses (probably an online venture: you have an account into which money is gifted and from which you buy from the websites of the participating presses);
- local bookshops hosting small presses on a couple of tables on occasional Saturdays, with all sales through the bookshop’s till;
- partner bookshops, which commit to ordering all a press’s new titles, and probably some backlist too, in return for a negotiated discount.

At tomorrow’s book fair there’ll be a book on the welcome desk in which you can write comments and add your name to the mailing list. Do feel free to go on a bit. Should the book fair last longer than one day? Is London the right place for it? Should it include all publishers, irrespective of size? Should it include fiction as well as poetry? Etc.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Exit stage right, enter stage left

The desk has an abandoned look about it. It’s no longer mine, not that it ever was mine to begin with: I was sitting in, I was a temp. That bundle is the printer’s proofs of the autumn issue of Poetry Review, with a few yellow stickies peeping out – there’s always some of those (imagine being Arthur Fry, inventor of the Post-It note) – and the magazine has now gone to press.

Coming home, as I was going down the long escalator at Holborn tube, I saw a poet I haven’t seen for months ascending on the up-escalator. We went for coffee. Why hadn’t I asked him for a poem? A poem of his, a good one, would have fitted this issue fine. Too late. But overall, no regrets. It’s out of my hands now, and in a couple of weeks’ time will belong to its readers.

Meanwhile, next Saturday, the 8th: the Free Verse 2012 Poetry Book Fair at Candid Arts, London EC1V 1NQ – another thing about to be put into the world, and that will belong on Saturday to whoever comes. Please do.

Grace Paley (1922–2007): ‘Then the flowers became very wild / because it was early September / and they had nothing to lose’