Monday 28 January 2008

Glasgow. Brodsky. Babel

15,000 free copies of a selection of 50 poems by Edwin Morgan will be distributed free throughout Glasgow in March (reported the Guardian on Saturday). What a bloody fantastic way to honour the man, and the people of Glasgow.

In 1991 Joseph Brodsky made what he called an immodest proposal. He noted that ‘the standard number of copies of a first or second collection by any poet in this country [the US] is something between 2,000 and 10,000 (and I speak of the commercial houses only). The latest census that I've seen gives the population of the United States as approximately 250 million. This means that a standard commercial publishing house, printing this or that author’s first or second volume, aims at only 0.001 percent of the entire population. To me, this is absurd.’ On the basis that ‘throughout what we call recorded history, the audience for poetry does not appear to have exceeded 1 per cent of the entire population’, he proposed that poetry be published in editions of 2.5 million – and argued that far from being childish idealism, this would make good economic sense: ‘A book of poetry printed in 2.5 million copies and priced at, say, $2, will in the end bring in more than 10,000 copies of the same edition priced at $20. You may encounter, of course, a problem of storage, but then you’ll be compelled to distribute as far and wide as the country. Moreover, if the government would recognize that the construction of your library is as essential to your inner vocation as business lunches are to your outer vocation, tax breaks could be made available to those who read, write, or publish poetry. The main loser, of course, would be the Brazilian rain forest. But I believe that a tree facing the choice between becoming a book of poems or a bunch of memos may well opt for the former.’

Poetry and readers: he believed in both. ‘Fifty million copies of an anthology of American poetry for $2 a copy can be sold in a country of 250 million. Perhaps not at once, but gradually, over a decade or so, they will sell. Books find their readers. And if they will not sell, well, let them lie around, absorb dust, rot, and disintegrate. There is always going to be a child who will fish a book out of the garbage heap. I was such a child, for what it’s worth; so, perhaps, were some of you.’

In 1993 the American Poetry and Literacy Project – a non-profit organisation, run by volunteers – was set up by a young writer, Andrew Carroll, with Brodsky’s support. To date it has distributed more than a million free poetry books in schools, subways, bus stations, supermarkets, day-care centres, etc.

In the UK we have the outfits who put poetry on buses and the Tube. And now we have the councillors of Glasgow. All hail.

PS – yesterday was the anniversary of the deathday of Isaac Babel, which the CBe authors (those still alive) and I marked with Polish stew and black vodka. Today is the anniversary of the deathday (in 1996) of Brodsky. Read a poem. Pour another vodka.

Florence W12

The above photograph is from Days and Nights in W12 (CB editions) – which is, as you already know if you have a copy (and if you don’t, why not?), a collection of fifty very ordinary photographs of Shepherd’s Bush, London W12 (school of Martin Parr’s books of boring postcards) accompanied by fifty prose paragraphs that comprise stories (some more plausible than others), reflections, speculations and the occasional historically accurate fact. It’s described in the blurb as ‘a modern-day topographical sketchbook with portraits from life, more or less’.

I’ve recently discovered that Days and Nights has a cousin – The Doorbells of Florence by Andrew Losowsky, published in 2006 and available from Losowsky’s book is described on his website as ‘a collection of 36 photographs and accompanying short stories, set in a strange version of the city of Florence’; the photographs are all of doorbells, the stories concern the people who might answer if you press those bells. (A disclaimer paragraph on the copyright page states that ‘This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real events, companies, situations or people, alive or dead, would just be weird.’)

The Uxbridge Road meets the Via degli Strozzi. Nights and Days in W12 is a low-cost production with black-and-white photographs; The Doorbells of Florence is a high-gloss book with full-bleed colour photographs (‘the mini coffee-table book that espresso was invented for’, another website calls it). Both are good. (But Night and Days is cheaper, and comes to you a lot quicker: buy now while stocks last.)

Saturday 26 January 2008

Pancakes or . . .?

This (photo by Kathryn Weatherell) is Muriel Belcher, founder of the Colony Room in Dean Street, Soho. I won’t rehearse the various antics of D. Thomas, F. Bacon, D. Hirst, etc, that the Colony Room has witnessed over the years, because to find them enchanting it helps if you’re pretty pissed yourself, and anyway many of them are related in the piece in this week’s Time Out which marks the Colony Room’s 60th birthday. The place is small, historic, densely atmospheric, and on 5th February, courtesy of Michael Wojas, Wiesiek Powaga will be reading there from In Sarah’s House (CB editions), his translation of stories by Stefan Grabinski. 5th Feb also happens to be Shrove Tuesday, so it’s a straight choice between either pancakes or (as billed on the invite) ‘an evening of horror and beauty’.

Monday 21 January 2008

Demons, etc

Never mind those people who learn Italian in order to read Dante in the original – I read in another blog today a comment by a reader whose reading of a certain contemporary novel took years, who gave up his job and moved to an unfurnished flat in Spain to finally crack it. It’s like coming across a holy man, someone who’s taken a vow, and I don’t know what to make of this. Although, of course, it's no more odd a way of spending one’s days than working in a factory making vacuum cleaners, or being a stockbroker. W sent me a fragment translated from the Polish entitled Talking to a Wise Man: ‘The moment he opened his mouth the demons started coming out of me . . .’ Me, I found a piece of wood this evening and got out a hammer and a saw and some nails and glue and made a bookshelf – sheer escapism.

Friday 18 January 2008

Rejection letters

People start to send me things: stories, novels, graphic work. And then I send them back, with letters saying why I’m sending them back. I don’t look forward to writing these letters: just as no one likes being rejected, rejecting isn’t fun either. And what’s being rejected here is not a cup of coffee. It’s work on which people have laboured for months, years, and in which the emotional investment is very high. (Someone – it may have been Ian Hamilton – remarked that you can tell a friend that his clothes sense is ridiculous, or even that his wife is a dumpy cow, and still remain friends, but if you tell him you don’t think much of his WRITING you’ve just lost that friend.)

Some of the work I send back is good. Some of it could appear with distinction on the list of a major publisher. That’s one of the reasons why I return it.

Having launched CBe from the kitchen table, almost by accident, a few months ago, we’ve been asking ourselves whether to scale it up and become more proper. This is the answer: no. CBe will remain more of a hobby than a fully fledged small press, and the new books we’ll publish will most likely be short, offbeat and not the kind of work a mainstream publisher would look twice at. We’re not trying here to make a virtue of eccentricity; and we’re not passing laws either – it’s possible, if one comes our way and we fall in love with it, we’ll publish what looks like and may even read like a conventional novel. But generally we’re not in the market for the kind of material for which there are already many other possible publishers.

Keep it hedonistic, as the man said before Christmas.

Wednesday 16 January 2008

Books, babies

The wavelets still rippling in the pond, which has farther shores than I’d guessed: I take books into the post office, How much for this one to the States? And this one to Australia? ‘Books?’ he asks, suspiciously: surely they have books in these countries already, their own ones? Behind me a Polish woman is rummaging through the shelves of birthday and Valentine and get-well-soon and sorry-I-messed-up cards. She speaks very little English. ‘Grandson,’ she says. How old? I ask. ‘One hour!’ she says. And then: ‘Two!’ We find two cards, identical, not the best but she has been a mother for two decades and now she is suddenly a grandmother too and she needs to make a start on this new job. She pushes aside my books in order to pay and get on the bus and rush to see her one-hour-old twin grandchildren. Aquarians, like me. When they are my own age now I will be a hundred and twelve.

Tuesday 15 January 2008

Riana’s attachments

Someone asks if we publish poetry, and it’s true that poetry wasn’t mentioned on the flyers among the genres ‘often neglected by larger publishers’, and I think this is because I’ve been neglecting it myself. It used to be fairly central: I read, wrote and talked it, and barely a day passed without at least one of those activities taking place. Now it isn’t, and it’s become like a language grown rusty from lack of use. What I do read tends to be by people who are dead. Much contemporary poetry leaves me cold (oh, but I did enjoy the new Frederick Seidel): I read some lines and am not engaged, then I read them again to look for what I must have missed and don’t find it, then I think that life is too short. The words stay flat on the page. But if someone wants to send me poems that can remind me of what poetry can do that other writing can’t, and that will pull me in and make me forget to cook supper, I’d be very pleased.

Someone who does send verse, and who will not take no for an answer, is Riana. (Not a real person, surely; this is spam. She could be a monkey playing with a set of those fridge-magnet words.) Despite the fact that I have many times unsubscribed, she insists on sending me emails promising to enlarge my penis within a week. And at the bottom are these strange Plain Text attachments. She doesn’t have a wide vocabulary but she’s clearly trying to do original things with the words she has. Here’s the most recent one:

Is him end something.
Study play or he this means sun could.
Mother still found him way number used does.
Come other take another mr his play.

They heard father country.
Next they parts top father animals under.
Going better next his hear little across his was next.
Paper way learn so sea himself what people make big.
Today his land he read against.

Me room before live only city that the hear and.
When began above once did side three name.
Best thought next miles second take began.
Head any parts should before again.
Men important him said name.
Show almost tell she miles that.

Friday 11 January 2008

The opposite of spine

This is a photo by Martina Geccelli, a London-based photographer. She also takes buildings, streets, still lifes of boxes and other everyday objects (there’s a lovely one that includes, as well as a cut lemon and a red pepper, blue and pink plastic bags). No people. But in all her apparently deadpan and static arrangements there’s something happening, between the different elements, across the spaces.

There’s a whole series of books, all with their spines facing away from the camera. The edges that we see are the most open of a book’s six planes, but these are the edges that usually face the wall. They are not designed or made up for public viewing; they are private. A book-lover naturally wants to see the covers, or to open the books further, to read what the words inside them are saying. But really they’re fine as they are: in their restricted range of colours, and the ways the individual books relate to one another, the photographs are like paintings by Morandi; and as with Morandi there’s wit, pathos, dignity, no sentimentality.

Wednesday 9 January 2008


Lorrie Moore. I forgot Lorrie Moore in the story-writer list in yesterday’s post. I knew there was someone, and tonight her name came back to me. (I was once reading an advance copy of a Lorrie Moore collection on the Tube and when I got off this really attractive American woman ran after me and asked, with great eagerness, ‘Where did you get that?’ None of this happens often – the woman, the running after, the question – and it took me a second to realise what she wanted, which was Lorrie Moore, not me at all.)

Meanwhile, someone emails asking for submissions guidelines. We don’t have any. Nor do we have appraisal forms, sexual harassment policies or mission statements. If we had an office, we might have to have all of those, and a water cooler and a post room too, and a fire alarm test once a month, but we don’t.

Explaining this took longer than replying to the email with a ready-made attachment, so maybe we should have some guidelines after all. No gratuitous descriptions of the countryside. No work that includes the word ‘luncheon’. No work that insists on telling me about minute differences between different makes of guns, or cars.

No. And none of that stuff about A4, double spacing and postage stamps either. People are intelligent, aren’t they? To treat them as if they’re not demeans both parties. And oddballs should be at least listened to. Besides, someone might want to send us erotic cartoons on the backs of envelopes with handwritten captions, which is fine.

Tuesday 8 January 2008

from The Dictionary of Received Ideas

novella: a work of fiction that falls between two stools. Written by someone European (i.e. German, French, Austrian, etc; not British). Not much happens in it, and don’t bother submitting to an agent or publisher: first you have to write a proper novel and then, just maybe, if the novel sells, they’ll consider your other stuff.

short story: fiction’s poor relation. Not worth writing because no one prints them and even if they do (quote from Prospect magazine) ‘as all publishers know, collections of short stories sell woefully in Britain’.

Hmm. Alice Munro, anyone? There are a LOT more outlets for short stories – magazines, competitions – than for, well, novels. Besides: Chekhov, Maupassant, Borges, Schulz, Babel, Calvino, Cheever, Updike, Isak Dinesen, Mavis Gallant, Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver, Aleksandar Hemon, Gianni Celati, Grace Paley, Alice Munro (again) – remember, you lot, first you have to write a NOVEL. Not to mention Lydia Davis. Miranda July.

On Sunday afternoon I took CBe books to an independent bookseller in south London. Two of his bestsellers last year (and probably ditto for most UK bookstores) were the new Ian McEwan and the new Alan Bennett, both of them novellas. (And if anyone wants to argue that the McEwan is in fact a novel, not a novella, can they please first tell me why the distinction matters.) He also imported copies of a book of short stories by an American writer he happens to like, and whom no one over here has heard of, and sold them all.

What’s going on here? A combination of many things. Unexamined received wisdom. The macho thing (He: ‘A novel, actually.’ She: ‘So tell me . . .’ As against: He: ‘A short story.’ She: ‘Oh.’ Turns away). The accountants and marketing folk at the same meeting as the editors: ‘If we’re selling this at £7.99, we’ve got to jump 200 pages . . .’ The fact that the big prizes – Booker, Orange, IMPAC – exclude anything shorter than a novel, as conventionally understood.

I’ve got nothing against the novel: 256 pages, justified text, beginning middle & ending, writers do amazing and wonderful things with that. But it’s not the only formula. Read the words, the sentences. Stop counting.

(PS: I would love to publish a new Dictionnaire des idées reçues, and hereby patent the intention. A single Flaubertian sensibility would be preferable, but random entries will be welcome and accumulated.)

Friday 4 January 2008

Not the gravedigger

Monday be-damned: Chris the printer phoned this morning to say the new copies of 24 for 3 are ready – which is less than 24 hours since I made up the new cover file (including, oh yes, a quote from the Guardian review) and took it in. By some misunderstanding the new copies are on different paper – so narrower spine, but the paper (less starkly white than the previous) is the one I should have chosen in the first place, and I changed the margins a few millimetres on the text file, and the result is altogether a nicer book.

The Bookseller Crow in Crystal Palace emails to say they’ve sold all the books we left with them and they want more. How many? Six of each title. (I used to write poetry, was published by Faber, and the hardship of getting those books into the shops: maybe one here, maybe two there. I called round once at the warehouse of the old Secker & Warburg to try, with some headed letter paper, to blag the Collected Stanley Kunitz at trade price; found myself talking to the gravedigger from Hamlet: poetry, he says, it rots on the shelves.)

Something, soon, is going to go disastrously wrong. But in the meantime . . .

Wiesiek wants a party-launch for the Grabinski book at the Colony Rooms, remembered with fondness. We met in Soho: a drink, an amazingly cheap meal in a quiet place, the Colony shut and barred, another drink in the French pub. The folk at home surprised to see me back early and sober. But we were at the cusp - to carry on talking, drinking, or stop now - and I think I want to read, or write, and if I can’t steal that time from work then I have to steal it from somewhere else.

Thursday 3 January 2008


Run out of copies of 24 for 3. Went to see Chris, the printer, who is ill and short-staffed and a little post-festive, but he’s promised me 60 more copies for Monday.

We’ve sold 400 books, and covered the start-up costs. Now we need to sell more: to publish new titles this year, and to start paying people (authors, proofreaders, etc).

Five months ago none of this existed. It began with an envelope on the doormat at the end of last August: inside was a cheque left me by an uncle who had died (he made it to a hundred) earlier in the year. Next day I talked with a printer down the road in Chiswick, and we got going, and one of the attractions of this way of publishing (for someone who’s both lazy and impatient) is the speed with which things can happen. If you discount the pre-publicity, the sending-out-for-review-in-good-time, the product placement, etc – and I do see the point of all this; but CBe isn’t in that marketplace – you’re left with editing, design, typesetting, proofreading, printing, binding. At a push, a pamphlet could have all those things done to it and be ready for selling two weeks after the text comes in. For most books this is irrelevant, but for a few – work commissioned at short notice for a particular event, say, or whose impact depends on its closeness to topical events – this could work in our favour.