Tuesday 30 July 2013

CBe 2013 7 / Alba Arikha, Soon

Modigliani – easier on the eye than a photograph of the door of a rehearsal studio down an alleyway in the rain. I’d taken my camera to the rehearsal this afternoon, but wasn’t forward enough to ask if – in the middle of intense collaborative work: singers, musisican, director, author, composer – I could use it. And Modigliani does make an appearance in the text of Soon, the narrative poem by Alba Arikha that’s being performed at the Riverside Studios, London, this Thursday and Friday, 1 and 2 August.

Whether the Modigliani sequence makes it into the opera by the composer Tom Smail, Alba Arikha's husband, based on the narrative poem, I don’t know. The Chopin sequence does: Chopin, who died in 1849, is one of the people on the mind of the narrator as she and other passengers on a train to Paris are stuck, somewhere in the middle of the French countryside: ‘We apologise for this technical problem, we’re dealing/ with it and will keep you updated,’ says the train announcer. Chopin sits down next to the narrator. This is one of the sequences I watched in rehearsal. In the space of the enforced pause on her journey, others – lovers, parents – are as real and present to the narrator as the variously impatient, disappointed, tired, ill, flirtatious co-travellers around her.

Soon was written as a poem; it has become an opera by happy accident. Tickets for the performances – two only – at the Riverside Studios are available here. The book, though not officially published until September, will be on sale at the performances and is also available now from the CBe website – where you’ll also find more details about both poem and author.

Friday 26 July 2013

Ponge; ‘wrong’

Two exemplary blog posts (not by me):

This one, on Francis Ponge, is from Dennis Cooper’s blog, and it’s of use to both those who are now saying ‘Francis who?’ and those who are saying, ‘Oh good, yes please, take me there.’ The fact that the book it recommends is Beverley Bie Brahic’s translations of Ponge, Unfinished Ode to Mud, published by CBe, doesn’t hurt.

It’s less an introduction to Ponge than a resource. There are extracts from lit crit; videos (including 4 minutes of BBB reading her translations at Shakespeare & Co, and the demolition of a tower block); more than a dozen links to other places; photographs of Ponge (with Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, with AndrĂ© Breton, etc) and of his drafts and notebooks; sample translations of the work, including excerpts from ‘My Creative Method’ (‘No doubt I am not very intelligent: in any case ideas are not my strong point. I’ve always been disappointed by them … Wanting to give one’s opinion as objectively valid, or in the absolute, seems to me as absurd as to state, for example, that curly blonde hair is truer than sleek black hair’); and if you’re still around after all the above, a thread of comments, some more relevant than others, by the blog’s followers (‘I have a fancy that I go on a date with Ponge. I know he was poor but his modest will and lovely observation on things that make them the text-object is just my thing’; ‘took painkillers. So I am cool now’).

This one, from a blog written by John Latta, came my way after I posted here, last Sunday, the Robinson quiz (still no complete answers; the stumbling block appears to be 1(e)). It comprises 25 brief excerpts, most from the work of US poets (though Beckett and Keats are in there too), all having within them the word ‘wrong’. Is it a collage, an assembly, a machine (think Tinguely)? It’s a composition, definitely. Scroll through the blog archive on the right and you’ll find other machines based on recurrence of other words: zebra, nail, joke, lemon, mutt, all among those from this year. The strings of excerpts chime, bounce, tease; I think they’re lovely.

PS: And here is a blog post, dated today, on Todd McEwen’s The Five Simple Machines. ‘World is crazier and more of it than we think, / Incorrigibly plural.’

On bookshops, and Leila Berg

This week’s TLS Freelance column is me writing on the experience of the pop-up bookshop that Todd Swift of Eyewear and I ran at the start of this month. I sent a copy of the proof to a bookseller friend, and he didn’t like it – the piece trades on the stereotype of the independent bookseller as male, grumpy, and inefficient, the last two of which he is certainly not. I can see his point. His own shop is thriving; at present it is expanding into the next-door premises.

Bookshops continue to amaze. In London this afternoon, from a box outside one shop I picked up a first edition of Ezra Pound, Selected Poems, ‘edited and with an introduction by T. S. Eliot’, published by Faber & Gwyer in 1928 and pre-owned by L. C. Knights, who bought it in Oxford in August 1930. I paid £3. Inside the shop was a Jacob’s Ladder construction (below) by Lisa Beth Robinson entitled ‘Waiting for the glue to dry’.

Then to Housmans bookshop where, shockingly, mid-conversation, I learned that Leila Berg died last year, aged 94. I have no idea how I missed this. In 2008 I visited her. I wanted to reissue her autobiographical Flickerbook, which to me is one of the finest memoirs of the last century; it takes her from Manchester Jewish working-class beginnings into political engagement (she had two lovers who died in the Spanish Civil War, and there I was, talking with her), and ends at the outbreak of the Second World War. I wrote about her at the time on this blog: here and here. The Guardian obituary is here. None of her books is in print. If you see copies of her Flickerbook or Look at Kids in a box outside a second-hand bookshop, get them.

Sunday 21 July 2013

Robinson: the quiz

The silly season, almost. Last time, under-estimating the reach of google, I rashly offered £50 of CBe books to whoever sent the first complete correct answers. This time, just three CBe books of your choice. For those, email me with author and title of each work from which the below are extracted.

June 21. – Very ill; frighted almost to death with the apprehensions of my sad condition—to be sick, and no help. Prayed to God, for the first time since the storm off Hull, but scarce knew what I said, or why, my thoughts being all confused. June 22. – A little better; but under dreadful apprehensions of sickness. June 23. – Very bad again; cold and shivering, and then a violent headache. June 24. – Much better. June 25. – An ague very violent; the fit held me seven hours; cold fit and hot, with faint sweats after it. June 26. – Better; and having no victuals to eat, took my gun, but found myself very weak. However, I killed a she-goat, and with much difficulty got it home, and broiled some of it, and ate, I would fain have stewed it, and made some broth, but had no pot.

The local museum’s asked me to
leave everything to them:
the flute, the knife, the shrivelled shoes,
my shedding goatskin trousers
(moths have got in the fur),
the parasol that took me such a time
remembering the way the ribs should go.
It still will work but, folded up,
looks like a plucked and skinny fowl.
How can anyone want such things?
– And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles
seventeen years ago come March.

We are now settled in lodgings in Clock Lane off Long Acre. I go by the name of Mrs Cruso, which you should bear in mind. I have a room on the second floor. Friday has a bed in the cellar, where I bring him his meals. By no means could I have abandoned him on the island. Nevertheless, a great city is no place for him. His confusion when I conducted him through the streets this last Saturday wrenched my heartstrings.
Our lodging is together five shillings a week. Whatever you send I shall be grateful for.

It happened one night that Robinson could not sleep. A pool of moonlight shone on the floor of the Residence. An owl called in the darkness, and he seemed to hear the very earth groan with a plaint of love deprived. His mattress of dried grass felt incongruously soft and unreal. He lay for a while thinking of Tenn’s mad, erotic dance round that open furrow, the body offered after being violated by Friday’s spade. It was a long time since he had visited the combe. His daughters, the mandrakes, must have grown big by now! He sat up with his feet in the moonlight and smelt the scent of sap rising in his big body, white as a root. He rose silently, stepped over the entwined bodies of Friday and Tenn, and set out for the copse of gum-trees and sandalwood.


[click on the pic and it opens in a new window, bigger]

Usually Robinson reserved the same large table in a fashionable restaurant where a dozen or more of us sat down to dinner. He went out of his way to be charming and intriguing (answering a question with a question), his deliberate reticence about himself calculated to provoke speculation. Everyone had a different angle on Robinson, who was at his most Gatsby-like during this period, mixing high and low life at the same table, seating rebellious young aristocrats next to a former criminal associate of the Krays who explained how to saw off the barrel of a shotgun. ‘Dangerous thing to do, now looking back on it,’ he told me. ‘But they were available, yeah, and they were usable.’ He fixed me with a dead stare perfected in the course of thousands of protection money collections.

The vocation for murder that had suddenly come over Robinson struck me in a way as an improvement over what I’d observed up until then in others, always half hateful, half benevolent, always boring with their vagueness, their indirection. I had definitely learned a thing or two by following Robinson in the night.
But there was a danger: the Law. ‘The Law is dangerous,’ I told him. ‘If you’re caught, you with the state of your health, you’ll be sunk ... You’ll never leave prison alive ... It’ll kill you ...’
‘That’s just too bad,’ he said. ‘I’m fed up with honest work … I’m getting old … still waiting my turn to have some fun, and when it comes ... if it does, with plenty of patience … I’ll have been dead and buried long ago ... Honest work is for suckers … You know that as well as I do ...’

Because I am done with this thing called work,
the paper-clips and staples of it all.
The customers and their huge excuses,
their incredulous lies and their beautiful
foul-mouthed daughters. I am swimming with it,
right up to here with it. And I am bored,
bored like the man who married a mermaid.

Recent occurrences to which he need not more particularly allude, but which have not been altogether without notice in some Sunday Papers, and in a daily paper which he need not name (here every other member of the company names it in an audible murmur), have caused him to reflect; and he feels that for him and Robinson to have any personal differences at such a moment, would be for ever to deny that good feeling in the general cause, for which he has reason to think and hope that the gentlemen in [...] have always been distinguished.

‘Robinson is not man for the ladies.’
That, too, I knew already. There is easily discernible in some men a certain indifference, not to woman precisely but to the feminine element in women, which might be interpreted in a number of ways. In Robinson I had detected something more than indifference: a kind of armed neutrality. So much for his attitude to me. And I thought it likely that he could be positively hostile to the idea of women in general.
‘Look here,’ I said to Jimmie, ‘I wasn’t born yeserday.’
‘Is so?’ said Jimmie gallantly.
‘And in any case,’ I said, ‘Robinson is not my style.’

‘Know my partner? Old Robinson. Yes; the Robinson. Don’t you know? The notorious Robinson. The man who smuggled more opium and bagged more seals in his time than any loose Johnny now alive. They say he used to board the sealing-schooners up Alaska way when the fog was so thick that the Lord God, He alone, could tell one man from another. Holy-Terror Robinson. That’s the man. He is with me in that guano thing. The best chance he ever came across in his life.’

Robinson afraid, drunk, sobbing Robinson
In bed with a Mrs Morse. Robinson at home;
Decisions: Toynbee or luminol? Where the sun
Shines, Robinson in flowered trunks, eyes toward
The breakers. Where the night ends, Robinson in East Side bars.

Robinson hesitated a moment, and then said, with a smile, ‘I am going to make you, sir, a very odd proposal after your last declaration; but what say you to a game at cards? it will serve to pass a tedious hour, and may divert your thoughts from more unpleasant speculations.’ I do not imagine Booth would have agreed to this; for, though some love of gaming had been formerly amongst his faults, yet he was not so egregiously addicted to that vice as to be tempted by the shabby plight of Robinson, who had, if I may so express myself, no charms for a gamester. If he had, however, any such inclinations, he had no opportunity to follow them, for, before he could make any answer to Robinson’s proposal, a strapping wench came up to Booth, and, taking hold of his arm, asked him to walk aside with her; saying, ‘What a pox, are you such a fresh cull that you do not know this fellow? why, he is a gambler, and committed for cheating at play. There is not such a pickpocket in the whole quad.’ A scene of altercation now ensued between Robinson and the lady, which ended in a bout at fisticuffs, in which the lady was greatly superior to the philosopher.

‘Let’s go for a spin,’ Mr Robinson said.
Benjamin reached into his pocket and pulled out the keys. ‘Can you work a foreign gearshift?’ he said, holding them out.
‘Do you know how to operate a foreign gearshift?’
‘Well sure,’ Mr Robinson said. ‘But I thought you’d take me for a spin yourself.’


Kenneth Grahame wrote The Wind in the Willows (1908) – in which Toad is bailed out from various scrapes by kindly others who have a soft spot for this feckless, conceited toff – while working at the Bank of England. Several of Grahame’s colleagues kept dogs in the basement and organised dog-fights in the lavatories. In 1903 he was shot at by an intruder named Robinson, whom the press referred to as a ‘Socialist Lunatic’.

Friday 12 July 2013

Does size matter?

On the Forward Prize shortlists, The Bookseller noted that ‘Independent publishers including CB editions, Doire Press and Smokestack Press have all won nominations, alongside established poetry publishers and imprints such as Faber, Picador and Jonathan Cape.’

Well, I know what they mean, but the adjectives usually used to distinguish one kind of publisher from another are rarely helpful. Faber is independent – and keeps on telling us, as if independent is an especially virtuous thing to be. I’m not sure it is; it doesn’t automatically follow that they publish better books than, say, Jonathan Cape or Harvill Secker, who are both part of Random House. And if Picador (founded 1972) is established, what does this make, say, Peter Owen (founded 1951)?

Compared to Picador, Peter Owen is small. Compared to CBe, Peter Owen is big, or at least bigger. When does a ‘small press’ cease to be small? And how next might it be described (‘medium-sized’)? Enitharmon? Five Leaves? Carcanet? Bloodaxe? Salt? Faber and Cape are generally reckoned to be big poetry publishers, even though they publish fewer poetry books each year than many publishers generally reckoned to be small. So number of titles published per year is not the determining factor: it’s more about the clout (or marketing muscle) behind them.

Given that 50+ poetry publishers will be showing and selling their books at the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair in September, ranging from the likes of Faber and Picador to the likes of Cultured Llama and Worple, we could use this occasion to gather statistics (titles per year, backlist, sales figures) and translate these into some form of league table. This, I think, is the kind of thing the Arts Council might spend money on, and it is deeply boring. The writing: this I am interested in, from whoever, and this only. I just get mildly annoyed whenever I read in a newspaper or online the adjectives small, independent, alternative, established (oh, the list goes on: innovative, cutting-edge, experimental) attached to a publisher as if they mean something precise. They don’t. And the more they are used imprecisely, to suggest rather than accurately describe, the more they are drained of all meaning.

Oh look, there’s a small press on a shortlist – this is where we are now at. In the way that, a decade or so ago, and often still occurs: Oh look, there’s a woman / black person / very old or very young or not-Oxbridge-educated person on a shortlist. This is a news story? There’s a time lag between what is actually happening and how it is reported, the ways of reporting it, there always is. They don't have even the vocabulary.

Tuesday 9 July 2013

Forward Prize shortlist strike rate

CBe has now published three first collections of poetry. Not many. But all three have been on the Forward First Collection Prize shortlist; and the first two, J. O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical and Nancy Gaffield’s Tokaido Road, both went on to win the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. (The third, Dan O’Brien’s War Reporter, is not eligible for this year’s Aldeburgh prize, its official publication date being outside their limit.)

CBe poetry titles were also on the main Forward shortlist last year and the year before (Beverley Bie Brahic’s White Sheets, D. Nurkse’s Voices over Water).

They help, these shortlistings, these prizes – I mean, for an outfit that barely knows what marketing is and can’t afford to pay someone who does, and which the Arts Council has three times decided not to support, they help sell some books and so keep the thing afloat. I’m indecently proud to have published Morgan, Gaffield, O’Brien, Brahic, Nurkse. I’m no less proud to have published, say, Andrew Elliot’s Mortality Rate.

PS [September 2013]: After I printed War Reporter early in order to give copies to Dan O'Brien when he came to London in June, the distributor Central Books changed the publication date to the date they received copies - and this change was picked up by Nielsen bookdata and by Amazon. So, with a June publication date, War Reporter was eligible for the Aldeburgh prize after all, and was duly submitted.

Monday 8 July 2013

CBe 2013 6 / Dan O'Brien, War Reporter

A year ago, on my first day in at Betterton Street as a guest editor of Poetry Review, I opened an envelope among the submissions pile with a US postmark. (With a US envelope, always a tiny thrill: a different shape, the US letter paper size being wider and shorter than A4, and it having travelled, this frail thing, so far.) I took two of Dan O’Brien’s poems and placed them first in the issue I was editing. I emailed him. CBe’s publishing of War Reporter is a result of this. (In the US it’s being published by Hanging Loose Press.)

I really do not rate books according to their subject matter – I’ll take Hampstead adultery or deprived northern childhoods or even office politics, as long as the writing is good – but there’s stuff going on in the world, in most of the world, that is beyond the experience of us first-world readers, and us first-world writers too, though not beyond our attention, and taking account of this is a thing that writing is for.

I felt that O’Brien’s poems had stumbled upon an honest and difficult way of doing this. (There are very few soldier-poets, these days; Brian Turner, whose work is published in the UK by Bloodaxe, is an exception.) O’Brien, a playwright, at some hard time in his own life made contact with a war reporter, Paul Watson, whose photograph of a dead American being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu had won a Pulitzer prize. They emailed, they talked, in ways perhaps eased by their distance. They met – weirdly, in the Canadian High Arctic, where Watson was taking time out from the war zones. Before going back: the Balkans, Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan and now, as I write and you read and people flee or die and often both, Syria.

The poems derive from the correspondence between O’Brien and Watson and from transcripts, recordings and Watson’s own published memoir. What’s in these poems is what you don’t see on TV. Shit happens, again and again and again, the kind of shit that war is: oh-so-casual killings, by both sides and by the so-called peace-keepers too, and worse. There is also engagement with some very brave people – doctors, teachers, translators, women asking for basic rights, other war reporters – and with the family of the dead soldier whose photograph the reporter has professionally profited by. The poem titles formalise the distinct roles of the two people involved in the making of this book (‘The War Reporter’, ‘The Poet’); the ‘I’ of the poems themselves migrates between the two.

Dan O’Brien’s play The Body of an American, derived from the same material, was joint winner earlier this year of the inaugural ($100,000) Edward Kennedy Drama Award in the US, and a London production is scheduled for early next year. Meanwhile, War Reporter. It is shortlisted for the Forward First Collection Prize 2013. It comes with endorsements from Fergal Keane and Andrew Motion and others, and at £8.99 (free postage) for 134 pages, in a format larger than most of the CBe books, it’s a steal.

CBe doesn’t do author photos, certainly not on the books, but here’s Dan O’Brien in a pub garden in London on 14 June:


First pic shows the shop this morning at 9.30; second pic, how the blue and orange colours of the shop posters chime so well with the RBKC rubbish bags.

We’re out of the shop now, and the next lot (shoes, dresses) are already in. The pic below shows Laura Del Rivo and Michael Horovitz, who separately came by this afternoon to say goodbye. Many thanks to Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves and Tony Ward of Arc for trusting us with their books. We – that is, Todd Swift, Nii Parkes and I – would like to give huge thanks to the following poets and writers and singer (in no particular order) who, in addition to Laura and Michael, came to the shop to give readings or performances or whatever during the week: Mark Ford, Keith Jarrett, Leah Fritz, Kimberly Campanello, Christopher Reid, Astrid Alben, Liane Straus, Tim Dooley, Tim Wells, John Stiles, Fiona Curran, Andrew Motion, Sandeep Parmar, James Byrne, Sarah Westcott, Denise Saul, Jacob Sam La Rose, Anthony Howell, Harry Man, Cathi Unsworth, Tamar Yoseloff, John Greening, Steven Fowler, Vanessa Vie …

To any I’ve missed, apologies. I’m tired, the edges are blurring. Thanks to all who came by, too. I’ve mentioned on Facebook but I’ll mention here again the woman from abroad, in London for a few days only, who happened to be passing the shop when Andrew Motion’s reading was about to start, and who came in. Andrew Motion prefaced one of his poems with a story, a very funny one, about Larkin and the Irish poet Richard Murphy. The woman who had happened to be passing by happened also to be Richard Murphy’s daughter.

I’ve no idea who the girl is in the photo below. If we’d taken 10p for every photo taken with the gorilla outside the shop – hundreds each day – we’d be rich. We’re not rich; we’re writers, small-press publishers, etc. It was a great week.

Monday 1 July 2013

Pop-up shop Monday

In at 9, not out till after 10. Some of the day: quiet afternoon in the jungle; Keith Jarrett performs; Mark Ford reads; later; later still. Continuing for all – but only – this week. You might want to come.