Monday 25 November 2013

Letter to a lit festival admin person

Dear [X]

1914: Poetry Remembers (Faber & Faber) – Public Reading Project

[Y] at Faber has forwarded your request for permission for a reading of Guillaume Apollinaire, ‘The Little Auto’, in Beverley Bie Brahic’s translation, at the above event in the forthcoming Bath Literature Festival.

I replied to [Y] to say that after the invoice for permission for the poem to appear in the Faber anthology has been paid (its due date is tomorrow, and no sign of it yet); and after a copy of the book as requested with the permission invoice has been received (it was published a month ago); and after Faber have confirmed that in any reprint or paperback edition the mis-spelt name of the translator will be corrected, and her name will be removed from under another poem that she did not translate, and the publication details of the book in which the translation originally appeared will be listed (at present there is no mention) – then we can talk about further permissions.

Until all that is sorted, I can’t give any further permission through Faber.

If, however, Bath Festivals is dealing directly with myself, and my dealings with Faber are not relevant, we can move on.

I find it odd that you suggest I ‘waive any fees usually applicable’. What do you mean by ‘usually’? Bath Festivals, the organisation from which you write and a registered charity, received in 2012 (the last publicly available accounts) £190,200 from ACE and £245,00 from Bath & NE Somerset Councils; and had £406,530 staff costs (for 14 employees; average, just over £29,000 each), plus £9,515 ‘staff expenses’; total income, £1,203,981. CB editions, from whom you are requesting permission, receives no public funding for its publishing; has no employees; and makes an annual loss, even though all editing, design, typesetting, marketing and time are given freely, not costed against income. Neither does the translator of the poem you request permission for make an income from that work, yet, beyond a very few coffees or beers above the £200 advance from CBe. This is how things get done, how a large amount of the material on which literary festivals depend gets produced. I and a co-organiser have put on an annual book fair for poetry presses in London for three years (50 publishers at each of the last two events) without any payment at all. We did it for the enjoyment, and have no regrets, which is how I publish also, but to have this work taken advantage of by other arts organisations that are in receipt of large amounts of public money – no.

So, £300 for the permission. Negotiable. We can talk, and I hope we will. Which will go to publisher/translator 50/50. More, if you like; that is, if you think that the existence of certain small presses putting out what is worth putting out is something needing support rather than being something to be exploited. I think the public reading idea is lovely. I think the Bath Literature Festival is a fine thing. I resent the assumption that, in times of cutting corners, rather than the admin, payment for the people who write, translate, publish, provide the material on which festivals depend, is the corner to be cut.

With all best wishes

Friday 22 November 2013

My reading list, c.1963

A snapshot from almost exactly fifty years ago: the above is a list of forty books that I read when I was eleven or twelve. I found it in a shoe box after my mother died in 2004. I’ve written here about this list before, but then I put it in a safe place and lost it; now I’ve found it again, disguised as a bookmark, so it gets another airing.

War and animals (especially dogs, wolves), mostly. Except for Shakespeare, no poetry (maybe poems didn’t count as ‘books’). C. S. Forester scores four, ‘+ 6 others’ (I’d already read the earlier books in the Hornblower series). John Buchan scores three, also Jack London, Conan Doyle; H. G. Wells scores two, as also Rider Haggard and Dickens. Shakespeare scores three but I think that was cheating, we probably did them in the classroom, reading aloud, the next boy along (it was an all-boys school) picking up whenever a new character entered, some giggling if that character was female). One each from Victor Hugo, Kipling, Walter Scott, RLS, Alistair MacLean, Hammond Innes. (Though I recall another year when, laid up with mumps, I read fourteen Hammond Inneses in a row.) A few predictable singles: Spencer-Chapman, The Jungle is Neutral; Lew Wallace, Ben Hur. The Lion is by Joseph Kessel, who also wrote Belle de Jour.

There are just two women writers on the list, Baroness Orczy and Rosemary Sutcliff. And only one book, I think, that was specifically written for children (Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth). ‘Young adults’ hadn’t yet been invented. Nor, of course, had PlayStations and Xboxes, which left a lot of time to fill.

Monday 4 November 2013

the coloured books

Sometimes (not often, for me; but still, sometimes) only a big book will do, by a writer long dead. Other times a slim book, as contemporary as they come. Times, even (lunchtimes, perhaps), a magazine. And then there are these slippy things – barely books, not pamphlets – that would fit snug in a shirt pocket, that you could slide under a closed door in a draughty house, even though each – with 48 pages: enough for a spine – is more substantial than it appears.

Now they are seven. And as well as continuing to be available separately, they now come as a boxed set – that is, they have a place to stay warm and safe, rather than getting muddled with last week’s newspapers or falling off the edge of the table and vanishing through cracks between the floorboards. All by Judy Kravis:

tell the bees (2007): a diary, March to September, of the year JK quit academe (‘Well, the affiliation with groves had me for a while. But the groves turned out to be treeless, the shade was battleship grey’) and started bee-keeping. Weather, music (‘Scarce sun despite dramatic sunset yesterday. Tadpoles waiting in the pond. Beethoven wild in the early trios’), dreams, cooking, shopping (‘Did you know your shoe shelves had slipped? I asked the woman behind the counter. It’s Monday, she said, smiling’), last essay-marking (‘Some sludge. Some wild flings in the direction of Ionesco. Some wikipedia. Some toothache’), blackberrying, neighbours (‘he’s a chancer, he’s like a lighthouse in a bog, bright but useless’), cutting back bracken (‘It leaves your forearms tingling later in the day’).

bunch of monads (2007): ‘One packed universe after another, tiny separate adventures, a high-end hum, intermittent, like morse code. Another breathless diary zone, in poem form. A monad is the simplest knowable unit of life. Like atoms, only bigger and older.’ A poem per less-than-a-page, hand-carved, finely balanced, yet full of distances. ‘A bedrock sort of life / should be fond, sturdy / undeniable and full / of fissures’.

the pataphysics of making bread (2009): diary, September 2005 to September 2009 with gaps of many weeks, centred on the ‘kneading parlour’. It’s physical, repetitive work: ‘The whack of dough on marble, the fold and push again and again. How you know when it’s dry enough but still moist, the proverbial earlobe consistency, or your three loaves have had maybe twenty minutes kneading and that could be enough. The notion of enough and how it doesn’t rhyme with dough. This is what start’s a baker’s day.’ As JK kneads she listens to the radio (Woman’s Hour, Desert Island Discs, Yesterday in Parliament), observes the weather, mulls over an email from the wandering Rafferty (‘There’s a special terror to being ill in a foreign language’). Surrender to the rituals, followed by the recording of this: ‘now the elasticity has settled into bread, and the smallest additions – salt, molasses, kefir, a little milk, pumpkin seeds – have distributed themselves. Writing down the process has brought it forward in my mind; I know it as I didn’t before, wordlessly, biblically.’

how to write round things (2010): ‘This habit of knowing my life by the days I / write and losing it by the days that get / away, hearts full, pulse / racing’ – more brief poems, discovering their own processes and rhythms but open to those of, say, overheard speech. counting your chickens: ’between the mist on the frost, first / and the trees behind smoke, later’.

local: three stories (2011): what it says on the tin, and if they feel like offcuts from a documentary of daily life I’d still say that the shaping and phrasing and the whole way of telling make them stories. The longest is the first, ‘Where the market place begins’: ‘I go down to the market place to stand in the current of human life, to sell eggs, to see what I see. To shed my solitude. For a solitary I’m talkative. Anything can set it off. A fish mouth, a gust of wind.’ Shopping, gossip, characters (‘Dutch is a genial hairy man; he likes people to linger’); the context of the ‘downturn’ is in there, the place now ‘a modern desert town’ after the Celtic Tiger years (when ‘Housing went up faster than a wartime cemetery’), but ‘I prefer egg boxes to soap boxes’. The middle story has a lot of gooseberries in it (Anna Karenina, I suddenly recall, includes scenes of jam-making). The third one is about horses and judges, with a side helping of opera.

strangeness (2011): odd little things, centred on the pages both horizontally and vertically, as if there was a fixed point around which everything coheres. Fat chance. ‘You think it’s a slope / but it’s vertical and as you start to / climb the vertical inverts and / you have the opposite of / handholds, footholds / and hope. // You mean I live here?’ The symmetry of these ‘elementary tales’ (they put me in mind of egg-timers) is unsettling rather than calmative. Often deeply funny: ‘Take a run at it. / Go visit Z. / Every tale has a Z. / His heart is so open / he’s easy to stab.’

flashes and floaters (2012): flash fiction, prose poems? I’ll pass; I find both terms awkward. Short (though as long as a page and a half) monologues or paragraphs of observation/ reflection that drift and snag (‘A certain bluntness can be unnerving in the land of proviso’) and pick up speed again. I like these a lot. (A number of them are uncannily similar in form to the bits & bobs, passages in a variety of voices, that make up Will Eaves’ The Absent Therapist, coming from CBe next February.)

That’s their nesting box up on the left. 7 x 48 = 336 pages, each to be taken slowly. You can get them from Road Books, run by Judy Kravis and her partner from a place that may or may not exist (Garravagh, Inniscarra) in County Cork, Ireland. Possibly also from Bookartbookshop in London N1. Road Books do other books too, and artists’ books, and 3-D objects.

I like, of course, the modesty of the coloured books: presentation and size and the lower-case titles all of a piece, and their not making any claim on me. I like the way JK seems to find a new form and then play with it, finding out what it can absorb, what butts up against it. The books are various but there’s a coherent aesthetic behind them all, which may be just a posh way of saying that I like the author’s turns of phrase and the cast of her mind.

Saturday 2 November 2013

As a man grows older

It’s unseasonably warm, no? Yesterday we were sitting at one of the cafĂ©’s outside tables for around an hour and a half, talking, in the early evening. There were noticeably more holes in the talk than I seem to remember there used to be – little holes where the names of people should have been, or the titles of books or films, but they’d slipped from my mind. So this itself for a while became the subject, and I wanted to use that word that relates to the condition towards which all things tend, oh, you know that word, I know it, but – no, not erosion, not degeneration. Not decrepitude. Not unravelling. We talked about thesauruses. X said she preferred a physical book because there’s always another word, in the next column or on the opposite page, that distracts her, and she likes that distraction, to the point where she may forget what word she was looking for in the first place. I use an an online thesaurus. We drifted onto online things and I began telling about the occasion last year on which I was talking to Y and Z approached us, and it was clear that he was expecting me to introduce him to Y but I couldn’t because, though I know Y, I’d forgotten his name, so I smiled at Z but carried on talking with Y – which Z, justifiably, considered rude, and told me so later in an online message. And as I began this story I suddenly realised that not only did I still not remember Y’s name, but now I’d also forgotten Z’s name, which I certainly did know at the time of which I was speaking. Again, that word – begins with e, I said; e, n, d – ‘Entropy!’ said X. God, the relief. The photo above is of Italo Svevo, author of As a Man Grows Older. For a number of years he lived in Charlton, south-east London.

Friday 1 November 2013

Reviews round-up

Above, multiplying crushed beer cans. Yesterday I heard someone on radio quote Richard Burton on critics: ‘eunuchs at the orgy’. Irrelevancies over, a little flurry of newsprint:

In this week’s TLS, John Greening on J. O. Morgan’s At Maldon: ‘The energy never flags, and there is considerable intensity of language … many passages where the combined forces of old and new are exhilaratingly persuasive.’

In yesterday’s Morning Star, Andy Croft on Dan O’Brien’s War Reporter: ‘It is partly a book about modern war, partly a book about the responsibility of news-media in making sense of the atrocities and absurdities of wars waged in our name. The book compels the reader to watch the poet watching the photographer watching what no one should ever see … Above all, it is a book about the terrible responsibility of the war photographer.’

In The North, Edmund Prestwich on Beverley Bie Brahic’s White Sheets: ‘She shares [Elizabeth] Bishop’s flair for presenting the mind in the act of thinking by verbalising the subtle evolutions of though, the false trials and associative leaps through which it reacts to the world.’

In tomorrow’s Daily Telegraph, a short piece on Alba Arikha, author of Soon, with a photograph of the author aged four in company with Samuel Beckett: ‘When I was born he bought me the most elegant pram and the largest teddy bear in Paris, according to my mother.’ On Wednesday, 13 November, from 7 pm. Alba Arikha will be reading, singing too, at Book & Kitchen, 31 All Saints Road, London W11 1HE.