Thursday 24 April 2008

Poetry, page 68

Most people walk by on the other side of the road. Some run for the hills. A few are interested (and then tend to divide into cliques and not speak to one another). And for a few of those few, life is insupportable without it. Although during the past thirty years poetry has become increasingly peripheral to the general cultural life, ‘the noise made by poems’, as Peter Levi called it, is still a sound that no other literary form can make; and most so-called serious publishers still pay it some form of lip service, even if only in the form of anthologies for children.

Yesterday I picked up the Faber July-to-December 2008 catalogue – Faber, the most renowned publisher of poetry in the business, so many of the greats of the past century on its list that you wonder why it hasn't been investigated by the monopolies commission, and the website chirps that ‘Faber continues to be at the vanguard of poetry publishing’. Anyway: ‘Original Poetry’, says the catalogue's contents list, and you turn to page 68 and there’s a book of interviews with Heaney. That is the ONLY book. There is not a single book of poetry.

There is, on the other hand, a 16-page section of ‘Seasonal Books’. Sample titles: The Complete Book of Mothers-in-Law, Is This Bottle Corked?, What is Mr Darcy’s First Name?

CBe will be publishing in the autumn new translations of poems by Francis Ponge, one of the finest French poets of the 20th century. Calvino called him ‘a peerless master’; Picasso once lent him his hat. Faber published a book of Ponge translations a few years ago, but it’s unavailable now.

Wednesday 23 April 2008

White blossom

The apple tree at the back of W’s house in Hungary, between storms – it’s a beauty. The picture was taken on Sunday. On the same day, driving the local roads in pouring rain, W saw a strange building on the horizon and went to explore. The rain stopped, sunshine broke through. At the end of a pot-holed lane he found an abandoned railway station: crumbling walls, ticket desk, cellar, a dark wild garden.

Trains, railway stations, disused tracks – these are recurring motifs in the stories of Stefan Grabinski, which W translated for CBe. Surrender to a writer, and the writer translates the world.

Sunday 20 April 2008

Q & A

Jennie, rashly, asks me for advice. She’s been given a questionnaire by her new publisher’s publicity people which, after the standard biog details, shoots off into colour-supplement-filler stuff: name your top five books of all time, worst book ever read, favourite word, etc. It’s like, If you were a vegetable, what vegetable would you be? And she wants to know how seriously she should take this, how seriously will her answers be taken? This one, for example: ‘Is there any particular ritual involved in your writing process?’ She lowers her voice and she tells me . . . No, I say, I don’t think so. It could put people off.

Wednesday 16 April 2008

Not the London Book Fair

Damn, I missed it. I emailed someone in New York today at around 4 o’clock and got an auto-response saying she was at the LBF, a couple of miles down the road from here, but it closed today at six and that’s that. I did think about going, up to last Friday when they were still offering discounted tickets, but then remembered the one time I did go, a couple of years ago, when it was in east London: the next-door emporium was hosting a trade fair involving cosmetics, and though I did go through the right (books) door I’m not sure there was much difference – catalogues, clashing colours, flimsy stalls and partitions, meetings involving calculators, the men in suits and the women with lots of make-up. Plus a few books, but no one reading them.

Anyway, I’ve already exceeded my book-sociability limit for the month. Last Wednesday night a poetry reading: one of the readers I’ve known for donkey’s years and the space (the Calder bookshop) was small and the organisation improvised and the poems, many of them, clear and piercing. Thursday the launch(?) of a book on the St Ives artists, where I got stuck, and then realised very happily stuck, with a tiny 80-odd-year-old woman in an ancient coat and brand-new running shoes: we talked about an artist she’d once known (Harry? Terry, we eventually worked out, Terry Frost), the casualties (60,000) on the first day of the Somme in 1916 and how much Cherie Blair pays for her handbags. I doubt I’d have met her at the LBF.

Friday 4 April 2008

How long does it take?

Once upon a time I was regular contributor to the London Magazine. I’d send a batch of half a dozen poems, and by return of post, or at most within a day or two, Alan Ross, then the editor, would reply – a handwritten postcard, saying which ones he was taking (and when he hoped to print them) and which not, and why.

Today I had an email from an editorial assistant at the London Magazine thanking me for sending 24 for 3 for review and stating that the LM ‘is always on the look out for material to review and welcome you to send us new publications regularly [sic]’. Actually I sent all four CBe books, along with a note pointing out that their design was modelled on the old London Magazine editions of the early 1970s, and I sent them over four and half months ago, in mid-November of last year.

What do people do in offices? Rhetorical question: I worked in several myself, and I know. In one of them I read Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. Nowadays those years of solitude are a sentence imposed by many publishers, magazines and agents on writers who have the cheek to send them manuscripts.

Recently I talked with a woman who sent some chapters to an agent, who liked them and asked her to send the complete manuscript, so she did; that was a year last February; last Christmas she got in touch with him: the manuscript was on his desk, he said, and he was still looking forward to reading it. It seems to be quite normal now for publishers to take months to get back to writers about books they’ve submitted; I’ve heard of periods of over a year. Jennie Walker’s 24 for 3 was submitted to another publisher before CBe; by the time the first publisher got back to her she’d given up on him and the CBe book was already in print.

(And still there’s the etiquette that requires a writer to submit to one place at a time, and wait for a response before sending somewhere else. Ditch that rule. Sending work to several places simultaneously requires a degree of self-confidence that many new writers don’t have; but there’s no good reason why they shouldn’t.)

Oh, and even after a book is in proof, the writer’s sentence of solitude isn’t necessarily over. I’ve come across two instances in the past year of publishers putting back a publication date, in one case by over a year, without bothering to tell the author.

What prompted Alan Ross’s fast responses was not, I’m sure, any idea of ‘efficiency’. The speed of his replies expressed confidence in his own judgement; an impatience with things piling up; and basic courtesy to the writer. Maybe someone could put in place an Alan Ross Award, to be given not to the editor whose books sell most copies, but to the one who best encourages new writers and shows them understanding and courtesy. Except that Ross wouldn’t like that; if there are to be awards, he’d want them all to go to writers.

Tuesday 1 April 2008

More TV moments

Prompted by The English Surgeon, subject of the last post . . . I remember watching – late, late – a passage in a documentary in which an Arab man was sitting at a table with a boy, who was eating a boiled egg, and the Arab man was steadily becoming uncontrollably angry while the boy ignored him, concentrating entirely on his egg. And one of what was apparently a series about the treatment of immigrants: Christmas carols being sung in a detention centre. Aeons ago, a documentary about the Sweetwater Canal in Egypt (I think John Arden was involved in the making of this), with British ex-servicemen reminiscing to camera about the 1950s: how they got a prize in the mess if their dogs savaged an Egyptian, how they picked up a 14-year-old girl by the roadside and gang-raped her in the truck. (Any occupying army: this is what happens.) A scene in a Dennis Potter play where a boy gets locked in the Harrods toy department overnight. A film, Italian I think (please, somebody, tell me the title), in which the girlfriend of a boy who has died comes to the house of his parents, they feed her, then give her a lift towards where she’s going, drop her off at the border, wander at dawn on a beach.

The film doesn’t count, but the rest of the above could be cue for a sermon about dumbing down. And I’m the right age to do it (57: Heinz varieties). Bring in films, books. But no, it’s the wrong argument. (Please, please don’t give me Melvyn Bragg interviewing Harold Pinter or Seamus Heaney.) Because, (1), the phrase ‘dumbing down’ implies a hierarchy and it’s the old highbrow/lowbrow, private-school/state-school, middle-class/working-class thing, a model that never worked from the start when applied to culture and certainly doesn’t now, so junk it; (2), 95 per cent of ‘culture’ has always been crap; that’s how it works: a hundred seeds, one or two may flower (and automatic deference to anyone claiming to be an artist helps no one; nor of course does automatic ridicule); and (3), there was no Golden Age. The difference between then and now is scale: more acres of newsprint, more channels and airtime to be filled, more levels of management and bureaucracy and therefore more built-in conservatism and conformity. Money and celebrity link in, reinforcing. But the essential 5 per cent – though it may be harder to be find, and yours is undoubtedly different from mine – is still there.