Sunday 30 October 2011

799 miles

Here is Rocky (see Natural Mechanical, then see Long Cuts, now available) at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh last Thursday. A library isn’t his natural habitat – he’s happier out of doors, or when the weather’s foul in the workshop with his vintage motorbikes – but he’s not going to be daunted by that.

Back home tonight from Edinburgh: 799 miles on the mileometer, and all of them worth it. The book fair at the Scottish Poetry Library, the company, the morning swims followed by porridge, the whisky, all good. (The one thing I’d happily erase from my memory was the film I stumbled into on Friday afternoon, We Need to Talk about Kevin; the lead review on IMDB gives it 9 out 10 and calls it ‘poetry’; I walked out.)

Sunday 23 October 2011

Points north and others

The Anarchist Book Fair in London on Saturday was well-attended and perversely well-organised: there was even a crèche for tiny anarchists. Plus film, discussions, etc., and a lot more tattoos and piercings on show than at the poetry book fair.

Chris Power’s continuing online-Guardian ‘Brief Survey of the Short Story’ looks at Denis Johnson this month. This is such a good series.

During this coming week I head up to Scotland for the launch of J. O. Morgan’s Long Cuts at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh on Thursday – from 6.30, and Rocky himself will be there – and then the book fair at the same place on Saturday. Everyone welcome. (Though obviously, those within striking distance of Edinburgh will find it easier.)

A rare trip out of London, and about time. I’m driving, because books are heavy and it gives me an excuse to digress on the way up or down. The car radio is bust, and it doesn’t have a CD-player, but it does have a tape thing and I’ve stocked up on cassettes from an Oxfam shop. And on the whole – meaning, dodgy generalisation coming – I’ve found out-of-London publishing folk not just friendlier and more open and interested but also more downright efficient than the London lot. (I’m not talking the London small-press people here, so maybe it’s a small press/big publisher divide rather than a London/‘the regions’ one, but still.) In London there’s so often a we-are-the-universe assumption, attitude, reinforced by the media, that needs to be negotiated before you can properly start talking. It’s patronising and it’s silly and any truth to it is surely long outdated.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Further to the below

Clare Conville, who teaches on the Faber Academy two-day course titled ‘Getting Your Novel Published’ (9 hours, £199), says in the Guardian supplement that her agency ‘receives 4,000-5,000 unsolicited manuscripts a year and on average take on a maximum of five a year’. Francis Bickmore, the other teacher on that course, says that Canongate receive around 3,000 submissions a year, from which ‘we are looking to find around 30 new books a year. Perhaps only five are going to be from a debut voice.’

(I’ll mention, why not, that CBe has published one of Clare Conville’s authors whose novel, despite the author’s excellent sales and prize-winning record, and despite this novel being already scheduled for a Glyndebourne opera adaptation, and despite it being a fine book – so very fine that I was more than happy interrupt the regular, as it seems, CBe profile to welcome it in – was turned down by all major publishers. See Knight Crew.)

It’s a lottery. £199 well spent? The desire to have your work in print, as another concrete object in the world, detached from yourself, seems entirely reasonable to me. (Online and downloadable is not, from the perspective of many writers, the same thing. And while music, most of it, is online, and except for dedicated concert-goers no one is objecting, art is not: to see three major contemporary artists now showing in London – Richter, Dumas, Sasnal – you have to go to the galleries, and no one is suggesting otherwise.) This desire, hunger, while being catered for by public sector courses in a decent way – though god knows who’s going to publish all those BAs and MAs – is being exploited by Faber and the Guardian, most conspicuously, for financial gain above all other reasons. (And Faber still get ACE money, public money, to publish new poets.) No reason why they shouldn’t: they are businesses, no less so than any other publisher or newspaper, all with their target audiences. It’s a free market. A controlled (by who?) market wouldn’t be any less messy, but still.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

‘Describe cancer. Describe calico.’

I’ve never done a writing course (as either student or teacher). I’d feel hugely self-conscious if I signed up to one. Not sure why; no one else seems to have this hang-up, and nor did the wannabe artists who went to art college decades ago, before ‘creative writing’ was on any syllabus. I tend to be cynical about them.

But today, there on the kitchen table was a 40-page Guardian supplement entitled ‘How to Write Fiction’ – a thing I occasionally try and usually fail to do – and it looks, after a quick skim, pretty impressive: non-prescriptive (‘feel free to dispute or ignore everything in this introduction or in the articles that follow,’ writes Geoff Dyer), and enough text written by enough authors for readers to cherry-pick the bits that look juiciest and ignore the others. (The authors – Rachel Cusk, Adam Foulds, M. J. Hyland, Andrew Miller among them – teach a new range of ‘UEA/Guardian Masterclasses’. Cost of the first one I checked out: £4,000. Which for weekly 3-hour class sessions over 24 weeks works out at £55 an hour. Which is probably no more than the rate you’d pay a plumber to mend a dripping tap, but still enough for my cynicism to click back on. Even if they get taken on by one of the big publishers, most first-time novelists are, I believe, getting advances of far less than that course fee.)

For someone who has written previously as a poet and who is switching to prose, there’s a lot to learn. Hugo Williams once did a good column on this: all those ‘he said’s and ‘she said’s, all that getting people into and out of rooms. All that description.

Description. Geoff Dyer in his introduction licenses me to dispense with it and just get on with the stuff I’m better at (= enjoy more?). Depends how it’s done and what it’s done for, of course, but here’s Virginia Woolf on the subject, after quoting (in ‘Character in Fiction’) a passage from an Arnold Bennett novel describing the view from a window: ‘One line of insight would have done more than all those lines of description; but let them pass as the necessary drudgery of the novelist.’ Her essay goes on to talk about ‘how serious a matter it is when the tools of one generation are useless for the next’, and about the difficulty of putting into words even the simplest experience or observation (‘this vivid, this overmastering impression’), in this case of an old woman she happened to have shared a railway carriage with: ‘To tell you the truth, I was . . . strongly tempted to manufacture a three-volume novel about the old lady’s son, and his adventures crossing the Atlantic, and her daughter, and how she kept a milliner’s shop in Westminster, the past life of Smith himself, and his house at Sheffield, though such stories seem to me the most dreary, irrelevant, and humbugging affairs in the world but if I had done that I should have escaped the appalling effort of saying what I meant. And to have got at what I meant, I should have had to go back and back and back; to experiment with one thing and another; to try this sentence and that, referring each word to my vision matching it as exactly as possible . . . I admit that I shirked that arduous undertaking. I let my Mrs Brown slip through my fingers . . . But that is partly the great Edwardians’ fault. I asked them – they are my elders and betters – How shall I begin to describe this woman’s character? And they said, “Begin by saying that her father kept a shop in Harrogate. Ascertain the rent. Ascertain the wages of shop assistants in the year 1878. Discover what her mother died of. Describe cancer. Describe calico. Describe –” But I cried, “Stop! Stop!” and I regret to say that I threw that ugly, that clumsy, that incongruous tool out of the window, for I knew that if I began describing the cancer and the calico my Mrs Brown, that vision to which I cling though I know no way of imparting it to you, would have been dulled and tarnished and vanished for ever.’

From which, two things. Writing involves at least as much arguing with your ‘elders and betters’, shutting your eyes and ears to them even, as it does learning from them. And if it’s about ‘the appalling effort of saying what I meant’, there has to be something you mean to say. Even if you only discover what that is through writing – which is where, I guess, the writing courses come back in.

Oh, a last thing. The Faber Academy course titled ‘Becoming a poet’ (£3,500, working out at just under £40 an hour class time, a snip). Roland Barthes would have had fun with that, in his Mythologies. Not writing poetry: becoming ‘a poet’.

Sunday 16 October 2011

Aldeburgh: 1989–2011(?)

Filey, on the Yorkshire coast, was the place we used to go to for our summer holidays when I was a child. And stay in a boarding house run by a Mrs Turner. Year after year after year. Every time, the suspense on the way there: would the car get stuck on Sutton Bank? Every time, a trip to the café in Goathland where there was a talking mynah bird. Every time, some unplanned, unexpected event (a plane crashing into the sea, after the pilot had ejected, was a star turn). What possible reason could there be to go anywhere else?

Aldeburgh (above), on the Suffolk coast, is where an annual poetry festival is held. Year after year after year, on the first weekend after the clocks go back, this is what happens: people go to the seaside to hear poets read and talk and discuss, eat fish & chips, walk by the sea. I read there myself in, I think, 1995, as one of three readers for the London Magazine (Peter Bland and Deryn Rees-Jones being the others), then run by Alan Ross. In the evening we gathered for drinks at the house of Herbert Lomas and then Alan blew the whole reading fee on a meal for us all at one of the restaurants.

Alan died ten years ago. Bertie Lomas died last month. Aldeburgh, astoundingly, renews itself each year: it has a policy of not inviting poets back (however well they’ve behaved), so has a new line-up each time you go, including poets from outside the UK (this year, from Albania, America, Australia, the Bahamas, Ireland, Jordan and New Zealand). Among those who go to listen to the poets there are, I suspect, regulars: they go to Aldeburgh as I was taken to Filey in the 1950s. And the place itself doesn’t change, much. But as well as new poets there are new visitors each year. And the mix of continuity and change creates a place from which you can expect both the familiar and the unexpected. (In around 2007 one poet at Aldeburgh happened to mention to another poet the name Francis Ponge; and the conversation continued; and the result was the CBe bilingual edition of Ponge, Unfinished Ode to Mud, the only UK edition of this writer. Each year there are many other such encounters.)

The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival is organised by the Poetry Trust – ‘one of the UK’s flagship poetry organisations, delivering a year-round live and digital programme, creative education opportunities, courses, prizes and publications’, which is website-speak, but they do in fact deliver. And they are remarkably inclusive: witness the constantly renewed programme; witness the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize, the history of whose winners and shortlists shows a far more open-minded outlook (in terms of gender, publisher, etc) than, most conspicuously, the Forward Prize.

But as far as I know (and please god there are, as they say, ‘continuing discussions’), this could be the last Aldeburgh. In March this year the Arts Council cut all secure funding to the Poetry Trust. Given the year-upon-year accumulation, the connections already made and there to be built on, the blend of discrimination and openness to the new, the continuity, this is vandalism.

I find it hard to believe this. It’s like my mother telling me no, from now on there is no Mrs Turner, no talking mynah bird, no Filey, no summer. She’s testing me. It cannot be right. Aldeburgh is simply there, each year, an essential part of the calendar. You don’t have to go, of course; you could give it a miss this year and go next year or the next. Except now, maybe not. 4th to the 6th November: see you there.

Spot the author

J. O. Morgan at the West Port Book Festival in Edinburgh last night (photo courtesy Peggy Hughes). Next sighting will be at the launch of Long Cuts (now available from the CBe website) at the Scottish Poetry Library on 27 October: all welcome.

Friday 14 October 2011

Trust the trustees?

Chisenhale Art Place (CAP) is the name of the registered charity that runs Chisenhale Studios in east London. Its website lists 37 artist members. Until very recently there were 40, but during the summer the board of trustees gave notice to three members that their licenses were being revoked and that they had to quit their studios. One of those three happens to be Madeleine Strindberg, my wife.

Madeleine has been a member of CAP for 25 years. During that time she has used her studio to produce work that has been shown in numerous exhibitions and that won her the Jerwood Painting Prize. In recent years her work has been made at home as well as in her Chisenhale studio, which has also been used for storage of earlier work and for showing this work to interested galleries. The reasons given for Madeleine’s eviction are that she is not contributing sufficiently to the aims of CAP and that her studio is not an essential part of her practice. Eviction means that Madeleine has to find alternative space for several hundred paintings; many are over 6 foot; they weigh, I’d guess, several tons.

There is no appeals procedure. Nor has there been any opportunity to even talk with the trustees about their decision: all communication has been via the administrator, appointed by the board, who refuse to talk directly with Madeleine. And even if the board has reason to argue that Madeleine’s studio at Chisenhale is not being used as actively as they’d like, there are still things to talk about. Such as the infrequent use of studios by many members other than the three being evicted (yesterday morning only one studio in the whole building was being used by its licensee, and a glance through the signing in/out book showed that there are very few days when even half the studios are being used). Such as the fact that one artist member (who also happens to be on the board of trustees) doesn’t even live in England. Such as the regulations about subletting and the use of studios as business premises and whether a blind eye is sometimes being turned. Such as the rumours about the planned redevelopment of the building.

The decision to evict Madeleine and the two others appears to be arbitrary. The board’s attitude has been bullying. (One of the other members being evicted recently wrote to the board informing them of the concerns of the chair of the National Federation of Artists Studio Providers about the way the evictions were being handled; a trustee replied that those concerns ‘are of no interest to us’ and that ‘The Board has had quite enough correspondence and email about all of this already. Please do not bother us any more with this’; this reply was the only direct communication from any of the trustees that the member has had.) The refusal of the trustees to discuss the situation (I’ve seen an email from the chair of the board in which he says he has ‘more pressing issues’ to deal with) betrays the whole spirit of the place, which was established to give artists ‘secure premises’ to get on with their art in a cooperative manner.

‘Board of trustees’ is of course a term that’s recently become familiar to many in the poetry world, where the Poetry Society has had to deal with the fall-out from some clumsy decisions by its own board. You wander along for years without paying attention to the machinery of these places, then a gear slips and you have to make sense of it all. I think at least some of the artist members of Chisenhale are concerned about their board’s behaviour, but are also worried that if they speak out they may be next in line for eviction.

Thursday 13 October 2011

Apollinaire: the back issue

Dodgy photos, but the first above is the cover of a 1968 issue of the London Magazine that I found in a crate outside a bookshop today. That’s Apollinaire with his friend André Rouveyre in a sequence of stills from a movie made in a coin-operated street booth in Paris in 1914 on the day the two of the them arrived in the city from Deauville, which happened also to be the day that general mobilisation was announced. Apollinaire signed on the dotted line and went to war and wrote the poems that will be in the CBe book early next next year, the French on the left and BB Brahic’s translations (she who translated the Ponge) on the right, and if your idea of ‘war poetry’ is over-conditioned by Wilfred Owen etc you may have to reconfigure. This is not, of course, an either/or thing; but mud-brown was not the only colour available, even in the trenches.

Apollinaire took a shrapnel wound in the head and died in 1918. 1968 is roughly halfway between then and where we are now.

These back-issues are always disorientating. There’s a heart-felt review of a poet whose ‘achievement is in being able to use domestic detail as a liberating symbolism’ and whose book ‘is the product of of a poet concerned with the most difficult and intransigent areas of experience’ and whose name is now forgotten. In the August 1968 London Magazine, also picked up from that crate, Kingsley Amis and Michael Holroyd and William Trevor and Peter Porter and many others reply to a questionnaire about political engagement; and Christopher Logue is interviewed about his poster poems; and not only are there are seven poems by Douglas Dunn from his Terry Street, which would be published by Faber the next year, but also six pages on good gloss paper of photographs (the second above) of Terry Street by Bob Whitaker.

There’s a flyer included offering me 12 issues for a annual subscription of 60 shillings (£3): bargain.

You won’t get any of those Bob Whitaker photographs of Terry Street by googling him (I’ve tried). Nor do you get me on my circa 1970 bicycle pilgrimage from Leeds to Hull (it’s flat land, easy cycling) to park the bike in Terry Street and just look. There’s a fair amount you don’t get on google.

Monday 10 October 2011


An oblique response to George Szirtes’ recent post on, with or without quote marks, Englishness:

1) 19-12 to France, and thank god England are out of the rugby world cup. Too much money, too much bureaucracy, too much strutting. But I’m English, and once upon a time I played the game. Now Wales, with great relief and with both head and heart.

2) I am English, male, white, middle-class, through-and-through, ineradicable, and if I have a habit of saying ‘sorry’ and stepping aside that’s all part of it. I know the codes, or some of them, and I’ve benefited from this. While also being someone who, in any neutral contest, naturally supports the underdog; someone whose favourite writers are either non-English or English-at-a-curious-angle (a conspicuous exception is Ford Madox Ford, but look at the writers he championed: Conrad, Pound, Joyce, Hemingway, James …); someone whose most important loves and friendships happen to have always been with non-English people; someone who feels them to be my countryfolk.

3) No sympathy required or expected or wanted. If I’m uneasy with the label English in any way that current labellers would define it, and certainly in any nationalistic way, clearly none of the other easy labels – minority, outsider, from-the-margins – will stick. What’s left is discomfort, conflictedness, under a camouflage of full-on Englishness, and I couldn’t ask for more.

Thursday 6 October 2011

Red sky at night, the mice will play

The Forward poetry prizes are over for another year. Congratulations to John Burnside and Rachael Boast. The two CBe shortlistees, D. Nurkse and Nancy Gaffield, came, saw and left by the back door. One takes this philosophically, of course. A gift horse is always on the other side of the fence. A miss is as good as a silver lining. What goes up is better than no bread. Sleeping dogs wait for no man. Too many cooks spoil the dwarf. (And other such perverbs from Harry Mathews’ Selected Declarations of Dependence.)