Friday 31 October 2008


Yesterday in the post office there was a full-volume row going on between a man and a woman about who slept with who and whether rubbers were used or not and I and the rest of the queue were listening in passive silence until the whole thing seemed about to escalate and I said something like Whoah, which is what you say to a horse, and the man told me to fuck off, he was having a private conversation with his wife, so I shrugged and got on with buying my stamps.

What I really wanted to say was that CBe’s first book of new poetry, Natural Mechanical by J. O. Morgan, published next February, is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, which is no mega deal but golly it’s something, it’s peer-group recognition and more than a pat on the back, it’s something that poets can write and publish half a dozen slim vols without getting, and not only is the book good but it’s one of the few that should find readers outside the usual tight little poetry circles, and tomorrow I think I will go to the post office and start shouting about it.

Wednesday 29 October 2008

The view from the 6th floor

I was wrong. (It happens.) Last night we had a launch party for Elise’s book, The TV President, in Waterstones Piccadilly, and I’d feared that this was over-reaching, way above (the 6th floor) my station, and that a room more like a company boardroom than a hugger-mugger bookshop would hardly be conducive to loosening up. But, well, I had a good time, met good people, drank good wine, and we sold over a hundred books. Today I washed 119 glasses, god knows what happened to the 120th, and though I’m sure real publishing outfits have people to do this for them it felt pretty real to me.

Sunday 26 October 2008


I regret, a bit, not wearing my red shirt yesterday at the book fair in the Conway Hall (I put it on, but then changed it for a black jumper before leaving home) because the man behind the adjacent table – Vincent Katz, New York poet, translator, editor, publisher, writer on art (Twombly, Clemente, et al), video producer/director and all-round necessary person – did wear a red shirt and the twin-effect would have been fitting: he has boy twins, I have boy twins. Such coincidences, odd angles of recognition, abounded. The lady who had been culling her books at home and had just placed Ponge’s Soap in the to-keep pile, then came to the fair and saw the CBe Ponge – whose very existence derives from another such happy concatenation, in this case the translator Beverley Bie Brahic happening to talk with a poet friend at last year’s Aldeburgh poetry festival. (We sold 12 copies of Ponge; and there’s a nice mention of the book, by the way, here.) These encounters made for two good days; the hours passed quickly, I have names and email addresses scribbled on bits of paper, and if by next year money will have been replaced by a barter economy the whole event will still be more than worth putting on.

Monday 20 October 2008

Spreading the word

There’s a review of Gert Hofmann’s Lichtenberg & The Little Flower Girl on Asylum – which I mention here not just because it’s good to see the book being praised ('a beauty and a fancy . . . a breath of air, a carefully chaotic representation of real life through the prism of a fictionalised historical character') but because Asylum is a place worth bookmarking by anyone who reads new (and not-so-new) fiction: sane, intelligent, helpful reviews of a kind you don’t often find in the newspapers, and the follow-up agreements/disagreements are worth a look too.

Saturday 18 October 2008

Small Publishers Fair

Gordon Brown can print money, and so can you and I. Print off a copy of the above and get a fiver off a purchase of three CBe books at the Small Publishers Fair, Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL, next Friday and Saturday, 24th and 25th October, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Free entry. One voucher per purchase, the usual small-print stuff.

The CBe table will have, in addition to the CBe books, Ondt & Gracehoper books by Christopher Reid and books produced by Ron Costley and Ken Garland. And amaretti. And if anyone wants to come along and hold the table while I go for a cigarette break, they are more than welcome.

Friday 10 October 2008

Small and predictable rant

For the record . . . Over the past few months I’ve written a diary column for a website, a full-page piece for Time Out, another piece about how CBe got started (by accident) and four columns for my local newspaper; I’ve read and talked at two bookshops, a writers’ group and a literary festival. Sum total of payments: £20, two bottles of liquor and supper in Bath. I’m not, I think, complaining – it’s been fun, and it’s more important that this yattering about books goes on than that anyone gets paid for it – but with what do they think I pay the broadband and catfood bills? Punctuation marks?

Other thing: this money-market meltdown mess, why are they all so taken by surprise, so rushing-around-trying-to-think-what-to-do-next? Over the last few years you only had to look at the photos of the City boys with their Xmas bonuses, and then take note of what was happening in the rest of the world, to know it was coming. I sound like my granny (‘It’ll all end in tears’). And when I die there’ll be no one more surprised than myself (‘Golly, this is happening to me?’). But still.

Nervous systematics

In case anyone stops sending me copy-editing work because of what I wrote somewhere not far below (‘there are more interesting things than correctness’), I should add that I do get bothered by punctuation and grammar that’s plain wrong, silly or misleading. I can argue all day about commas. (I’m currently having a rather boring argument with an author who wants to use both en-rules and em-rules for dashes; he has his reasons, but the result on the page will look to the innocent reader like a mistake.)

A tool for clarity and precision, good punctuation is essentially good manners; it’s about being courteous to readers, saving them from confusion and having to read your sentences again to work out what you’re trying to say. But ‘good’ doesn’t always mean it has to obey the school rules. The zero-tolerance but muddled approach of Lynne Truss is no help at all. (For a sensible take on Truss – ‘Why should a person who is not just vague about the rules but disinclined to follow them bother to produce a guide to punctuation?’ – see Louis Menand in The New Yorker.) For good read appropriate. There are writers who use no quote marks for speech, who sometimes don’t bother with punctuation at all, who ignore the usage guides, and if they’re clever enough – a big if, but it happens – that’s fine.

Earlier this week Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems 1947–80 fell into my lap, and I read this in his introduction: ‘Syntax punctuation Capitalization remain idiosyncratic, retaining the variable measure of nervous systematics.’

Tuesday 7 October 2008

Table, chair, paper

Those pictures in the Guardian Saturday Review of the rooms where writers write – I don’t see the point. They’ve been tidied up for the photographer. There’s little of dramatic visual interest (compared to, say, the pictures of artists’ studios). Most aren’t really any different from the rooms in which non-writers do their accounts or play online games. The whole column is just a sub-category of those World-of-Interiors-type features that invite you to gawp at other people’s cushions and curtains.

Most conspicuously missing in the pictures is the writer writing. So what you’re presented with is a fenced-off desk like those in museums – and telling readers that this is where the writer sits is like telling them to switch on religious awe, but without any helpful past-century detail or stunning church architecture.

A flaw in the whole concept is that the rooms are irrelevant to the whole process of writing anyway. Writers don’t need rooms in the way that artists need studios (OK, not all of them; there are artists who live and work against the whole studio-based tradition; but the ones with stretchers and gallons of paint do need somewhere to put them). Books can be written on trains, in cafes, in hotels and other public spaces, and having a special room to do it in doesn’t necessarily help. Hell, wrote Louis MacNeice, is a soundproof room. Geoff Dyer in his book on Lawrence has a great riff on looking for the perfect room in which to write, the writing of which is a way of postponing writing what he’s supposed to be writing, just as the search for the room is a way of putting off getting down to writing.

The woman is the photo above is Grace Metalious. She may be posed (The Writer Thinking, with her half-smoked cigarette), and the photo of Gipsy Rose Lee on the CBe website (and here) is certainly posed, but both say more about the writers, and how and where they worked, than the Guardian fillers.

A modest proposal

. . . concerning the nation’s health.

I’ve been away for some days in Devon. I’ve been staying in non-smoking households, and the drastic reduction in my cigarette ration has affected my normal body rhythm (of ingestion, digestion, excretion) and left me feeling gummed up and bloated. To combat the national obesity problem, the government might consider encouraging more people to smoke.

Friday 3 October 2008

Black and white

I’d thought the Book of Bursa, to be published early next year, was going to have three parts: novella, prose bits, poems. Oh no, says W the translator, it should be jumbled up. And the Intro should go at the end.

Who knows best, author/translator or editor? Both, often. And in disputed matters, the former have the last word; it’s their book. There’s a nice (short) piece on editing by Barbara Epler here.

I’ve worked with some authors who are happy for me to rewrite their every sentence, and barely trouble to read the proofs. And others who (noli me tangere) won’t allow one comma to be changed – which is sometimes seen as sign of a ‘good’ writer, but I doubt that. I’m generalising here, but it’s usually the young and the ambitious and the insecure who are most hostile to suggestions from others and who keep on sending in their own changes right down to and beyond the deadline; the great and the good, the ones who’ve been writing for decades and who know their own business far better than anyone else involved with the text, tend to respond to suggestions (from copy-editors, proofreaders) courteously, promptly, efficiently. I once got proofs back from a reader with pencilled suggestions for punctuation changes on every page; I phoned the author (big name, world fame) to suggest I send him these proofs; there was a pause (I imagined him looking out of the window, balancing a day spent going over the proofs yet again against a day out fishing), and then he said no, I should just make any changes myself that I thought best.

We could, of course, have spent hours, days, discussing those punctuation changes. The style guides have their uses but often there’s no absolute right or wrong, and anyway there are more interesting things than correctness. Meanwhile, buy a few of the new books out of those boxes above, take that cat down a peg or two.