17 May 2020

Life in Live (Online) Literature Land

This week was pretty full on, literature wise. It was Week 2 of the online poetry course I'm doing with the Manchester Writing School at MMU - topics included metre and rhyme and forms, with us going off into the ether to find out about (and share our discoveries with the rest of the class) different types of poem such as villanelles and sestinas. I spent a good while checking out collage and finding out about French/Romanian avant-garde poet, art critic etc Tristan Tzara, who was an early advocate of ‘cut-up’, chopping out words from a newspaper and drawing them randomly from a hat to create a poem. I have a number of suitable hats; maybe I'll give it a go.

The overarching theme for the second week was "tools", ranging from a basic discussion of writer's tools such as pens and pencils to the creation of a new piece from the memory of a tool "which has personal significance to you". Over the course of various exercises, we were given photo prompts, created our own prompts, and wrote within certain time frames; I ended up with three poems and am particularly pleased that I plonked on, and stuck with, attempting to create a concrete poem to reflect the shape of the tool I chose to focus on (sailing related). 

I'd also signed up to a five-day short story challenge created by flash fiction guru and poet Tania Hershman. From Monday to Friday, my email pinged (it didn't really; do I look like someone who has their computer ping with every new email?) as daily prompts and work of wisdom arrived. On the day I was encouraged to incorporate into my work found phrases from written material knocking about my house (recipe books, instruction manuals and so on), I used the same ones to feed into the poetry course, so it was helpful on two fronts. 

I also partook in some live lit events. Yes, Live Literature Land has gone online, so I've been gathering intel on what's happening in the interwebs, with a view to turning over the engine on the old Creative Tourist column and hoping the battery's not dead. Anything you're running and wotnot, let me know. On Monday, I watched the first Evening In With Flapjack Press via Zoom (yep, I downloaded new stuff), featuring readings from Anna Percy, Gerry Potter, Thick Richard and more. Really enjoyable and it's going to be coming to a screen near you regularly (the next one's tomorrow, with Tony "Longfella" Walsh, newly crowned Saboteur winner Dominic Berry and so on). On Thursday, episode #1 of Makar To Makar streamed via YouTube - with Jackie Kay (the Scottish poet laureate, if you will) welcomed us into her living room (virtually of course), reading old and new poems and chatting to Peggy Hughes and singer Suzanne Bonnar. This new poetry/music/conversation show will be weekly for 16 weeks, so until 27 August if I can still work a diary correctly. 

I also caught the English PL, Simon Armitage, sharing his Desert Island Discs and chatting to people in his shed (from the promo shots in the paper, he has the same deckchairs as us. We got ours out of a skip. They may, or may not, have previously belonged to that actor off of Cold Feet). On Saturday night, we were invited to "salon" Leap In The Dark hosted by David Collard, and focusing on Nightjar Press, introduced by Nicholas Royle. Enjoyed a chat between Wyl Menmuir and Alison Moore, readings from Conrad Williams and more, and some special one-off soundscapes created the spot by Gary Fisher, who we worked with on the FaxFiction project last year. Then the internet cut out. Above is a picture of us from Nick, taken unawares.

(Finally, apologies for the state of the blog's hotchpotch fonts, terrible mobile device display, and general slipshod look. It's run on 2009, possibly 2008, Blogger; the poor thing's held together with sticky tape and laccy bands. It's vintage, dahlinks.)

07 May 2020

The one where I go on about poetry...

This week, I've been busy learning lots about poetry, having signed up for the How To Make A Poem online course run by the Manchester Writing School at Man Met. Headed up by Michael Symmons Roberts, Helen Mort and Martin Kratz, the programme is an inspiring and well-put-together mix of presentations and exercises set by the team, with some interesting suggestions and discussions on the part of the participants. 

As a rule, I write flash fiction and dabble with structuralist stuff and sometimes experimental prose, but while I've read a lot of poetry over the years (I did a literature-based French degree and have a Masters in Creative Writing) and listen to a lot at live lit events, I'm not really all that up on the specifics - stanzas, metre, that kind of thing - and was keen to find out more about elements of poetry and also explore whether I can try my hand at writing some myself.

So far, I've created a two-line cut-and-shut job cento and a found poem, and contributed to a group poem by picking "one good word" from a poem I'd already mentioned as being a favourite. I chose "shipshape" from Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood - as well as it being a very "vocal" word, with the repetition of the "sh" and "p" sounds, it appeals to my interest in the sea and boats, literally and metaphorically. I explained that I enjoy Thomas for his quite specific Welsh "postcards" (not unlike the snapshots of the past provided by Philip Larkin in The Whitsun Weddings, probably one of the first poetry collections I read and liked) and a vivid language that you can allow to roll around on your tongue. I'm interested in languages and dialect and accents, and introduced a few new readers to Liz Berry and her Birmingham Roller.

For the first time myself, I looked at work by the recently passed Irish poet Eavan Boland, reading her piece Cityscape - I was drawn to the title, and the poem resonated with me for its connection to the Irish Sea and a seawater pool, a subject I explored in my sort-of-creative nonfiction story The General Synopsis At Midday for the Port anthology, and when wearing my Victoria Baths writer-in-residence hat. 

I've always been interested in words and language - my mum's side of the family are Welsh, so maybe that had something to do with it. As part of my degree, and since, I've read a lot of French writers both in the original and in translation and, as is the case in English writing, the choice of words is hugely important for their sound as well as things like semantics, making translating for sense while retaining all levels of meaning and nuance an art form in itself. It was at university (the first time) that I got interested in OuLiPo (still a huge influence on me), and I ended up doing my thesis on Georges Perec (my tutor - David Bellos - was, still is, I think, his main translator). 

As mentioned here before All This, one of my New Year's Resolutions for 2020 was to read La Vie Mode d'empoli - although in translation as Life A User's Manual as it's quite the lengthy tome. I embarked upon this reading journey just last week, so imagine my excitement beyond belief when the main assignment for Week 1 of How To Make A Poem was to read Perec's essay The Street from Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, or - as I know it - Espèces d'espaces, and create a found poem by following his instructions: "Force yourself to write down what is of no interest."

Just like Perec (pictured with his cat, Duchat), I'm curious about how we interact with and are influenced by the spaces around us. I frequently go on a dérive to source material for my stories, and even in a time of coronavirus this continues (I've participated in both lockdown First Sundays with, but not with, the Loiterers Resistance Movement so far - see my Instagram and Twitter for photographic evidence). So instead of sitting still at my desk making a note of l'infraordinaire, as I'd already pretty much just done and had published by the Mid Life Crisis Zine Series, I went for a wander. I had to go out and meet a visual artist to pick up a painting of Victoria Baths I'd bought off her, so I combined this and my daily permitted exercise with trying to track down the location of some Paulownia trees I'd seen in order to tell my psychogeography friend who'd mentioned missing the ones in St Peter’s Square. Some of the text in my found poem is from my Wikipedia research about the trees, some from Facebook and Instagram messages with the two women (I hope they don't mind; as fellow artists themselves, I'm sure they won't), and some was found en route to my rendezvous. I've been super excited to have created a brand-new piece of work, and it seemed to have been well received, so yay! 

My poem (oh my goodness, I said it) is COVID-19 related and I've also been checking out the series Postcards From Malthusia - "work in response to the Coronavirus crisis" - in particular Sophie Herxheimer's "covid related cut ups", created using an interesting process and at some point to be published by ZimZalla but for now available to read online here

As I've been reading around the subject, I also suddenly remembered that, at some point during my first degree, I took a module relating to French Surrealist poetry and read work by the likes of Rimbaud, Ponge and Eluard, and I remember reading Apollinaire's Il Pleut, which is written on the page to look like rain running down a window. By chance, I spotted in a photographer friend's Twitter stream about the archive of Concrete poet Dom Sylvester Houédard, aka dsh (pictured in 1964 at the Signals Gallery in London), which is being meticulously recorded and stored at the John Rylands Library on Deansgate - more here

The cento, I hear you ask?

the tailor scissors razoring open
left only a hand and some blue

(From Vahni Capildeo To London from Measures of Expatriation, 2016, Carcanet & Philip Larkin Sunny Prestatyn from The Whitsun Weddings, 1964, Faber & Faber)

As I observed: "No one said poetry had to play nice all the time."      

19 April 2020

Poetry and la peste

Receiving snail mail (even email, if I'm honest) is even more exciting at the moment than it was pre-lockdown, and receiving the latest pamphlet in the Mid Life Crisis Zine Series is even more exciting than even that excitement! Thanks to Sally Barrett or including in The Virus Edition some of my brand-new Covid-19 work, which I based on Raymond Queneau's Exercices de Style and called Daily Permissible Exercises In Style. 

I told Sally when submitting: "I've been having fun creating this piece for consideration for the next edition of Mid Life Crisis. The background to it, if you need it, is that (inspired by Georges Perec) I sat and wrote down everything that happened, and that I thought about writing down, when nothing happened, for an hour 10-11am on 1 April. This quite long piece, I then condensed into the first piece here, retaining all the people who went by and discarding some of the other stuff. I then applied Queneau devices and other Oulipian constraints until I could take no more and had to go out into the sunshine, which I am now about to do." That was a week ago, when it was sunny.

More info. Story 1 is wordcount limited to 250 words; classic flash fiction. Story 2 is a lipogram, retelling Story 1 using words that don't include the letters C and V (the pandemic letters). Story 3 swaps out nouns in Story 1 with the nouns, in order, in the Foreword (by Umberto Eco) to the English translation (by Barbara Wright) of Exercises In Style. Story 4 is Story 1 told back to front. Since then, I've turned the discarded "other stuff" into another story and submitted it to a flash fiction site - fingers crossed on that front. 

Anyway, my thanks to Sally for the inclusion, the last-minute tweak, the copy of the magazine and the accompanying postcard; a Paris restaurant interior by Van Gogh. Above, I am modelling the fabulous pamphlet, while wearing my T-shirt designed by another of the contributors, Steve Hanson (of Manchester Review Of Books; in fact, there's a review of the zine here - "fine useage of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style"), which reads "sous les pavés, la vide" after the Parisian 1968 student protest slogan "sous les pavés, la plage". "Under the paving stones, the beach" (the setts the protestors removed from the streets were laid on top of sand) becomes "under the paving stones, the void", a reference to sinkholes and psychogeography, and, originally, "une histoire des années soixantes", which is my own reference to Perec's Les Choses. A Void is the English translation of La Disparition, a lipogram novel by Perec. Sorry. I'll shut up now. Email Sally via hoodwinked.mammal@gmail.com to buy the pamphlet!

26 March 2020

The new normal

So, the world has started spinning at a very different speed and it's going to take a bit of getting used to. Lots of new words and phrases have become a part of our everyday vocabulary like we knew them all from primary school - self-isolating, social distancing, furlough leave... the latter has been imposed on me by my two-day-a-week job, my other regular gig has "gone dark". The rest, the freelance work? Bits and bobs are ongoing but who knows for how long. Not to worry, I'll maybe take some time out to breathe in the fresher air, tidy up the house and garden, maybe even do a spot of writing that's not about other people's stuff. I've already bashed out a small piece for a newly set up creative writing website, 100 Words Of Solitude (see what they did there?), which I'll hopefully get round to submitting this week, when not rustling up homemade soup from wild garlic foraged at a safe distance from other writers. I've also cobbled together a piece over here about possible funding options in the arts, so, y'know, keep positive, keep crafting...