Monday 28 January 2013

Jack - no: master - of all trades

Among last year’s celebrations of the centenary of the birth of Edward Lear there wasn’t much – or did I miss it? – about his travel writing or his paintings and drawings. He’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ man, the nonsense-verse man. We do like our categories to be tidy. He’s that kind of pigeon, we decide, and that’s the hole in which we’ll slot him. (Do the people who read John Burnside’s poetry also read his prose (fiction, memoirs)? And vice versa. Ditto with Patrick McGuinness and a number of others. I’m not sure they do, or want to. It could confuse.)

Yesterday there was a day-long (12 noon to 7 p.m.) celebration of the life and work of Dai Vaughan, who died last June and whose Sister of the artist and parallel texts CBe published last year. First let me gush about the venue, the Cinema Museum in London SE11, an extraordinary private collection (of posters, stills, cameras, seating, signs, lights, reels and reels of film, etc) housed (without any public funding) in the old Lambeth workhouse (where Charlie Chaplin was at one time resident; above). It’s personal and it’s magic (handwritten notices on doors, heaps of uncatalogued material in the corridors). In the big high-ceilinged main hall there was space for well over a hundred people to meet (some after after a gap of decades; I was Johnny-come-lately, I knew Dai for less than a year), talk, drink, eat (food provided by the next-door Buddhists), watch and listen.

Most people there were from the world of documentary film in which Dai spent his working life. ‘The best film editor I ever worked with,’ the Bafta-winning director Michael Darlow said of Dai. ‘No matter how hard I studied just how he had achieved such a perfectly natural flow, rhythm and emotional development in a sequence, it remained somehow beyond precise comprehension – it was always so simple, unostentatious and yet so perfect.’ (Quoted from the Independent obit; but the assessment was repeated, almost as a refrain, throughout yesterday.) It wasn’t all panegyric: Dai was demanding, difficult, could be fierce; the chairperson of the proceedings recalled an argument after which Dai refused to speak to him for a period of years. The clips shown included extracts from films of a 1960s Labour party conference and the 1968 Grosvenor Square anti-US demonstration, from Granada’s World in Action (Che Guevara’s body displayed to journalists, an interview with the imprisoned Regis Debray) and Disappearing World (fish caught by bow and arrow in South America, Masai women standing up to their menfolk: ‘modernist’, said the woman who introduced, of Dai’s editing; visceral, I’d add), and a complete early short film in which postcards from WW1 are voiced-over by readings of their handwritten messages.

There were readings from Dai’s books (published by Quartet, Seren, others including Rack Press: Nick Murray was there). I’m not sure what the film folk made of these: this wasn’t their Dai. But all the pieces fitted together: image and text, the politics, the diversity of gathered people; only yesterday did I realise the breadth of knowledge (he researched avidly) from which the folklore fragments in Sister of the artist, even if invented, derive; he had an award from the Royal Institute of Anthropology for a lifetime’s contribution to ethnographic film-making. One reading was of Dai on Humphrey Jennings, film-maker and writer/compiler (his Pandaemonium 1660–1886 was the inspiration for Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony): ‘Jack-of-all-trades’, Dai noted, is a standard British put-down of those whose variousness defies our pigeon-holing. He was there all day – film man, writer, lover, father, teacher, encourager, all-round maker: there were small sculptures in the room salvaged from his tiny flat, sculptures made of wood, stone, the rinds of Edam cheese for godsake, anything to hand – and when the screen wasn’t showing film it held a caricature of Dai, bearded and nimble, looking down with a glance both tolerant and not at the ways in which we sell each other short, ourselves too.

Friday 25 January 2013

CBe 2013 2 / Andrew Elliott, Mortality Rate

Maybe three years ago Andrew Elliott sent me some poems in the post for CBe. I sent him a rejection email, probably the usual: small outfit, very few books per year, liked them but no.

One night last year, insomniac, wandering the living room in the early hours, I went looking for those poems and found them. That they’d survived was strange – I’m a thrower-away, not a hoarder; I feed the bin-men. But I did like them: they surprised me, they gave pleasures of a different kind from those that most poetry gives. I emailed him again, at around 5 a.m.: you know those poems you sent me two years ago, have you placed them yet?

(Publishers can change their minds? You bet they can. Minds do need changing now and then, to keep them flexible.)

Elliott has published two previous collections, both with Blackstaff. The Creationists (1989) has fine poems; there may even have been a prize, or something like, attached to it. Twenty years later, Lung Soup (2009), which is a wholly different fish: here are Germany and America and decadence in various guises and Amy and Sabrina and sentences that are so wrapped up in what they’re doing, and at the same time unwrapping, they don’t hear you say when, they go on pouring. Mortality Rate is in the same vein. As individual collections of poetry go, this is a big one: 150 pages, wide and tall. A few of the poems are in the downloadable extract on the website page; another is in the Hofmann book. They are just a soupçon.

I have no idea how this book is going to fare. Generally, if you write/publish a collection of poetry, what you’re putting out is a book of around 60 pages with poems that fit a B-format or demy page with hardly a turned-over line, and if it’s good of its kind it may get, god willing, an occasional good-of-its-kind review. I haven’t yet mentioned style, content, but here too there are invisible intergalactic forces pulling things towards a central zone labelled consensus: these are the things that get written about, these are the ways to do it, and if you sign up and pay for sixteen workshops we’ll help you. (Am I exaggerating? There are the mavericks and the outriders but on the whole I think not. Maybe I just read too much of the stuff. For work, you understand.) There are probably reasonable reasons (socio-linguistic ones?) for this. The poems can be wonderful. And if you want to do something different, to enter the room by a different door, you go online, or do performance, or go underground. But if you want to do something different but stick with the book and the printed line?

Liberties are taken in Mortality Rate but not, I think, self-indulgently: motifs recur, poems nod one to another, and they do, despite energetically working against this, cohere. Which is to say, perhaps, they are ‘well made’. In a sly way they are also very funny. Are there too many poems here? By which I mean, are too many of the poems doing essentially the same thing? No, because the tactics – improvisation, spinning out rather than in, including rather than supressing the mind’s jumps and leaps – require this width of the spine. And anyway, you don’t have to read them all in one go. Each time I go into into this book, I find a poem I want to pause at, share, read aloud. I don’t see that many is a problem.

I think some folk may find Mortality Rate irritating. I think some will enjoy it. I think some will sit on the fence. That is not a comfortable place to sit. I suggest you read it and jump down, one side or the other. You're allowed to change your mind later.

Sunday 20 January 2013

‘I’d prefer not to’

The received wisdom is that, as a publisher of poetry (and other stuff; in fact, more of the other stuff), I’m not going to sell more than the occasional copy or two unless the poet puts herself/himself about and does readings. Another route to sales of the kind that deliver back on the investment is a PBS recommendation – which guarantees a given number of sales, but for their seasonal bulletin requires an author photo and some paragraphs from the author about the book.

Author photos, statements and (for the books that CBe puts out) public readings have nothing, absolutely zero, to do with the quality of the published work. Nor, of course, do the author’s age, gender, religion or non-religion, career history, academic qualifications, sexual preferences and who they know.

So when a bookshop offers a reading slot to an author I’m about to publish, or when a newspaper or other organisation asks for an author photo, and the author gives the Bartleby response, that’s fine. It’s more than fine. It’s a statement of a kind in itself. It’s a reminder that the skills required for public reading, or teaching, or just generally getting on in the world, are different skills entirely from those required for good writing, and there need be no correlation at all.

It’s a statement that’s not going to be heard. For a publisher, this is cause for for worry, but at the level CBe operates not much. The bigger the publisher = the more money invested = more cause for worry, but that’s their problem. It’s still a statement worth making. (Next Thursday, in London there are five different poetry launches/readings. Madness.)

Sunday 6 January 2013

CBe 2013 1 / The Palm Beach Effect: Reflections on Michael Hofmann

Hofmann’s last collection of new poems was fourteen years ago; his Selected from Faber, five years ago, included a sparse handful of new poems, departure a thread in those. He lives now in the US. It’s possible that for most writers and readers under my own age he’s hearsay, a rumour, despite the flood of prose translations: Joseph Roth, conspicuously, but also, in the past couple of years alone, Grünbein, Stamm, Wasserman, Fallada, Remarque, Döblin, Jungk. Who? Exactly. If Hofmann’s name does come up, as often as not it’s in the conflict arena that the vultures, the culture ones not least, zero in on: his dissing of Sebald, of Stefan Zweig, of the new translations of Zbigniew Herbert. (A colleague in my Faber days once took a taxi with a chatty driver who asked what she did, where she worked, and she mentioned Ted Hughes and he said, Oh, yes, the guy whose wife stuck her head in the oven. Between talent and what you’re known for there’s no simple correlation.)

Checking the quotes in Palm Beach against the texts, I opened my copy of Hofmann’s first book, Nights in the Iron Hotel, and a compliment slip slipped out: ‘Review copy / Faber paperback £4.00 / publication date 7 November 1983.’ Sent to me by Alan Ross of the London Magazine, and I did review it. Almost yesterday, it feels. In any generation, there are no more than two or three that at a personal level really count, half a dozen if you’re feeling generous, no matter how wide the net’s cast, how various the routes to publication, and for many in my generation Hofmann has occupied one of those places ever since then. When André N-S and Julian S, who had the nous to get this book together, came to me and suggested it for CBe I didn’t need to think twice.

There are forty contributors to The Palm Beach Effect (the Contents page and the editors’ prefaces are included in the downloadable extract on the website page): some younger than me, some older; and from Germany and the US as well as the UK. There are memoirs of how it used to be (‘I was employed as one of half a dozen in-house readers at Jonathan Cape ... and it seemed to be understood that we would spend as much time keeping up with our literary pals as we did reading manuscripts’); some lit crit (David Wheatley, Mark Ford, Tessa Hadley, others); poems (Sarah Maguire, Frederick Seidel, Durs Grünbein, others); and also – and for UK readers here is a new window opening – there’s first-hand testimony from students who have been taught by Hofmann in Florida (‘He didn’t lecture, had only the most modest sense of authority in the classroom, often winged it (sometimes to brilliant effect, other times not) and sometimes struggled on the spot ... He assigned us novels in poetry workshops, rarely made formal syllabi ... His genius was widely recognized; he was fun-loving, kind, always went for a drink after workshop, had an ever-open door ...)’. The silences are in there too; Hofmann has a reputation for being difficult to talk to, for not doing small talk (actually he does, if not in the standard English register); but what abounds in this book is an abiding affection for the man.

Included in The Palm Beach Effect is a fine essay on Hofmann and ‘confessional poetry’ by Dennis O’Driscoll, whose untimely death cast a shadow over the Christmas period. I barely knew him, but we emailed about this and other books and, like others who knew him better and who have spoken in recent weeks, I felt his generosity and the uplift he gave you by his immediate trust that what you were doing was worth doing, that it mattered. These things are rare.

Months ago, I wrote on the AI sheet for this book that ‘The intention of this collection of essays, poems and reflections ... is both to celebrate the man and his work and and to reaffirm his central place in contemporary literature.’ Blurbspeak, and the word central needs some teasing out. He doesn’t do consensus (can you imagine Hofmann being Poet Laureate? or the go-to man for a soundbite on the state of the nation / contemporary poetry / translation even?). There’s something bygone-era about the man: learned in an auto-didact kind of way, opinionated, bookish (not ebookish), uncompromising, Russian-revolutionary, ‘superfluous man’, eternal student. I’m romanticising here, idealising, a bit (it’s a thing we do, about writers whose work is important to us), but the particular angle at which Hofmann operates in relation to home-grown UK culture feels important. I’m not backing away an inch from the word celebrate.

Friday 4 January 2013

CBe 2013 0 / preamble

This may be no bad thing: to say why CBe is publishing the books, one by one, that it does. CBe is a one-person operation, publishing entirely on personal taste, and if it sometimes mingles with the Big People – the shortlists, the prizes – that doesn’t mean that it sells accordingly, because it doesn’t have the resources (marketing, publicity) to capitalise on that, so I may as well make play with what it does have, and attempt to turn its lack of resources into an advantage rather than the opposite.

First up will be a post on the Michael Hofmann book, probably on Monday. If, reading it, you get the feeling you’re being encouraged to buy the book, that this is a selling piece, you won’t be wrong. This is what publishers do: put stuff out there that they want to share, and because they’ve invested some cash in this process they want to share it with as many people as they can reach. But I promise that the posts will not include the following words: passion, creative, tour de force, accessible, discount. Some of the posts will meander. They’ll be about how each book came to me, and the kind of personal engagement that doesn’t translate into the conventions of the blurb, or even the website page. They’ll be a kind of in-brief review of the book, a very subjective one, admittedly, but at least it might start the ball rolling.