Monday 25 June 2012

On modesty

The job of writers, it seems now to be accepted, includes promoting themselves and their wonderfulness on Facebook and blogs and in all other possible ways. No: the job of a writer is simply to write.

On the day in February when I took round to Dai Vaughan the printed copies of Sister of the artist, he suggested I call by his local bookshop, where he’d been a regular customer over a long time and which might take a couple of copies for the shop. I went there and mentioned his name and they were clearly fond of him. I showed the book. ‘He’s a writer?’ They hadn’t known.

From Tony Lurcock’s introduction to his book ‘Not So Barren or Uncultivated’: British Travellers in Finland 1760–1830, published by CBe in 2010: ‘It is by no means necessary to read the introduction to enjoy the contents of the book, nor need the book be read chronologically, in full, or indeed at all.’

Modesty is not the same as reticence, can still partake of a flourish. Tony Lurcock pointed me to this, from a travel book published in 1848: ‘In thus presenting to you what you are likely to meet with on the road, this unpretending volume may afford some little guidance, and therefore to you, indulgent reader, I dedicate it. Conscious that brighter and more lasting constellations dazzle around with superior radiance, I nevertheless venture to launch it – like some tiny fire-balloon, into the wide world of starry night, feeling assured that the blast of criticism would be its destruction; but, if favoured with approving zephyrs, it may be wafted on for a brief season, affording some glimmer of light to the passing traveller on his way.’

Friday 15 June 2012

Poetry Olympics, the Horovitz version

Yesterday evening at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London Michael Horovitz put on one of the events that have been running for many years under the title Poetry Olympics (Horovitz’s title, not anyone else’s, and nothing to with the poetry events coming up soon on the South Bank that form part of the cultural add-on to the Olympic Games). Poets and musicians of all stripes and colours and ages. I’m not going to list them here, partly because it’s too late now to use those names to make you interested enough to buy a ticket, mainly because in the end the sum was greater than the parts: the whole thing cohered, and was seamless while also offering huge variety. Timing was relaxed but controlled: each participant finished leaving you wanting more. Those contributing included a 32-piece band with a wild mix of instruments; as they played, sometimes one of the musicians would come forward and do a solo, and then he/she would merge back into the group and another would step forward. All the performers yesterday were part of one band.

What I’ve just described is very similar to what Terry Eagleton offers as ‘an image of the good life’ in his book (in the Oxford ‘Very Short Introduction’ series) The Meaning of Life: an improvising jazz group, in which ‘the collective harmony they fashion comes not from playing a collective score, but from the free musical expression of each member acting as the basis for the free expression of the others. As each player grows more musically eloquent, the others draw inspiration from this . . . There is no conflict here between freedom and the “good of the whole”, yet the image is the reverse of totalitarian . . . One could do worse, surely, than propose such a situation as the meaning of life – both in the sense that it is what makes life meaningful, and – more controversially – in the sense that when we act in this way, we realise our natures at our finest.’

Eagleton goes on: ‘Is jazz, then, the meaning of life? Not exactly. The goal would be to construct this kind of community on a wider scale, which is a problem of politics. It is, to be sure, a utopian aspiration, but it is none the worse for that. The point of such aspirations is to indicate a direction, however lamentably we are bound to fall short of the goal . . .’ I think this is what Horovitz is about. Seriously and playfully (the two go together; if they don't, something has gone wrong). I don't think he's naive or sentimental in the slightest. At the beginning of yesterday evening’s event he tripped over trailing cables and fell spectacularly, but he’s not going to be put off by a few bruises, and watching him perform and enabling others to perform – both – is inspiring.

PS. In the audience yesterday was Emily, a neighbour, whose father was a poet. Here’s a verse from George Buchanan’s Minute-Book of a City, published 40 years ago:

Absence of ideas in the Cabinet. Dust fell
from the ceiling in a slow shower. They rang and sent
for another basket of statistics. Could no one find
the document that would increase the amount of hope?
The poets’ message read: ‘If we’re to avoid disaster
it may be enough to make existence attractive.’
The Prime Minister walked crossly to the window.
‘Pleasure? Are they cuckoo?’ He smacked one
clenched hand into another. ‘We must be tough!’

Sunday 10 June 2012

Wiki editing

There’s also online editing, or more specifically the editing of Wikipedia. Someone with editing privileges doctored the short entry on myself last week: I am now, within the article, ‘A42’, and I published the novel 24 for 3 ‘under the pseudonym Bill Nye’.

As if two pen-names were not enough. Checking this out, I find that the same person who edited my entry also edited, on the same day, Wiki articles on ‘Islam’s response to contemporary issues’, on 'Killing Addiction' (a ‘death metal-grindcore band’), and on ‘Nyotaimori’ (which is – but you knew this? – the practice of serving sushi on the body of a naked woman).

PS: A couple of hours after I posted the above, the Wiki entry was re-edited, with A42 reverting to me and Bill Nye reverting to Jennie Walker. The real Bill Nye, by the way (or at least a Bill Nye, the one who pops up first on a google search) - I mean not the one who is not a pseudonym of me - appears to be a science journalist/ comedian/ TV-show host. He married in 2006; seven weeks later the marriage was declared invalid; he later took out a restraining order on his ex-wife (or ex-not-wife) after she entered his property and poured weedkiller on his rose bushes. All the above is true; I got it from Wiki.

Editing again (books)

Why the post before last strayed off-track was because I got wandered into a long quote on book editing, as opposed to magazine editing . . .

On the one hand, Gordon Lish edited Raymond Carver almost to the point of creating a writer, the one we thought we knew, until the un-Lished work was posthumously published. On the other hand, here is Barbara Epler, chief editor at New Directions: ‘Actual editing consists so much of petting and patting beautiful writing . . . With the poets, that means allowing for differences. One poet, alive like the inside of a light bulb, requires five or six sets of proofs: allow time. One might need a suggested re-jigging of the order of contents: allow possible irritation. Allow “grey”and “gray” in the same volume (the former greenish and the latter more blue: the opposite of what I'd guessed). Also allow the fact that many poets don’t need you at all, except to run interference with the designers for fonts and cover art . . . Translations allow and need the most tinkering. The one thing I know for sure is that the better the translators, the more they enjoy editing. They like the queries and the complicity: the turning their new fabric to the light together, looking at its play, showing the gorgeous weave and colors and also maybe a few snags here and there. The best translators love pouncing on that snag: they might not pull it then in the direction you suggest, but they carefully undertake a new phrase. You fiddle with long, multi-clausal snakes of sentences, questioning colons and semi-colons and dashes, or eliminating serial commas between multiple adjectives when the sentence winds more than a half a page. You allow the utter twigginess of Robert Walser or the multiplicities of BolaƱo but ask about this “saw-in-the-pants” (and the translator from the Hebrew says, “Ah yes, I thought you'd ask about that – the author doesn't know”). You might suggest monkeying with the verb tense or the tone or atmosphere or dialogue – how it might sound more idiomatic – but in the end a lot boils down to six-of-one, half-a-dozen-of-the-other; your name’s not on the book, you did your job by mentioning those spots . . . Your job is just to worry, to check and double-check. One study pointed out that the difference between competent people and incompetent people is that competent people know they might be wrong and double- and triple-check; incompetent people know they’re right. (Or, as a Brazilian publisher joked, What’s the difference between ignorance and arrogance? “I don’t know and I don’t care.”) Editing doesn’t seem to be a process of knowing but of asking. You just do the best you can . . . And after you do the best you can, you enjoy the beautiful book and people’s pleasure in it.’

I like that. I’m in the Epler camp. (Though I can veer wildly, when in the mood.) But magazine editing, and more specifically the Poetry Review issue, is a different thing. More on that next month, perhaps.

Wednesday 6 June 2012

Dai Vaughan, 1933–2012

Dai Vaughan – film editor and producer, teacher, essayist, poet, novelist, fabulist – died last night. Last October, a film-maker paid this tribute to Dai (‘the most interesting, serious and skilled editor anyone could hope to find in the UK’): ‘He was quick to laugh, and even quicker to stroke his beard when a serious thought took hold. Every day, rain or shine, Dai took a walk during lunch . . .’ Here is Dai in interview with Mark Thwaite: ‘The evolutionary psychologists are right: we are still chimpanzees. But do we have to remain chimpanzees? One reason for writing fiction, and this includes fiction without overt political content, is to confront people with such choices. There’s a well-worn formulation – Gramsci, isn’t it? – “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. I can subscribe to that.’

His novel Sister of the artist was published by CBe earlier this year. From the last poem in a sequence he sent to me a few weeks ago, now in proof: ‘And one counts, as with the / New-born, each breath a miracle.’