02 November 2020

Eyes on the prize

I’ve been here, sitting on the sidelines, waiting in the wings, overflowing with updates to share on the blog – but I thought I’d hold out on posting until now, when the secrecy I’d been sworn to is finally allowed to be released into the wild. The exciting news I’ve been holding in for over a month is that one of my favourite recent pieces has been shortlisted in this year’s Bridport Prize - out of 1,722 flash fiction entries! The lovely email said “That puts you in the top 5% of the competition. Take a bow. Well done!”, after starting with the wonderful opening gambit of “It’s inspiring news” (far better than another recent missive that began “Your job” – more on that later). You can watch a great video of the “prize-giving ceremony” with films of the winners reading their work and the judges describing their process here and see the shortlists in each category – flash, short stories, poetry and novels – here.

I also heard through the grapevine (Twitter) that Confingo #14 is out this week. I’m proper chuffed to have what I’m calling a “triptych” (I’m currently working on the annual AIL Report all about artwork saved for the nation, so I can’t help myself!) of prose poems published therein. I’ve had quite a lot of flash fiction and short stories printed, and I’ve had poetry online, but I think this will be my first "proper" poetry in actual print since I was 12, when I won an engraved fountain pen in the WH Smith Young Writers' Competition. Yes, I still have the pen, in its presentation box; I’m not a monster. For the Confingo triplet, I even got paid – a crisp twenty pound note has just been popped through the letterbox and I’m considering sticking it on my bedroom wall to bring up in future talks, à la Armitage. 

The Confingo trio is from my debut pamphlet cache-cache, which was given an airing (well received, too, which is nice) at Paris Lit Up and which is looking for a home while I start thinking about my next, entitled Water Palaces & Chateaux d’Eau and drawing on my experience as Writer-in-Residence at Victoria Baths. In the meantime, I’ve been working on some other poems, have completed the rather good University of York online poetry course with FutureLearn, How To Read A Poem, and I’m about to make a start on Forward Prize-winning Maliker Booker’s Arvon five-day poetry writing challenge. 

Also coming up print-wise is mine and Jazmine Linklater’s European Poetry Festival collaboration, which will be featured in the forthcoming Oulipo supplement in PN Review – very exciting indeed! PN Review and Carcanet supremo Michael Schmidt is hosting an event at this year’s online Aldeburgh Poetry Festival (the Port anthology was launched there last year) featuring The Penguin Book of Oulipo editor Philip Terry – who’s also coming up at a special zimZalla event on Wednesday 18 November at 7pm alongside Sophie Herxheimer (loved her cutup stuff on New Boots & Pantisocracies, also featuring one of my cache-cache numbers, 'Guidance Avoidance'); zimZalla being the object publishing arm of Tom Jenks, who I was recently seen chatting to online alongside CD Rose at two Love Bites evenings – the first, David Collard’s salon series Leap In The Dark, and the second (below) as part of Altrincham Word Fest, for whom I also ran a flash fiction showcase event (above). And breathe. 

Jazz has just published a pamphlet, Figure A Motion, with Guillemot Press, and her launch with Chener Books is one of the many events I’ve been patronising, virtually of course. Since last we spoke, I’ve heard from The Mezzanine and Room Temperature (love those books, very infra-ordinary) author Nicholson Baker via a University of Glasgow livestream, I’ve been to the Winchester Poetry Prize-giving, hosted by Man Met's Andrew McMillan, and the aforementioned Forward Prizes, and I’ve attended the first event at the first online Manchester Literature Festival, when Daisy Johnson and Sophie Mackintosh chatted to the Centre For New Writing's Jeanette Winterson (one of my tutors when I was there). Just in the last week, I’ve been to a York Centre for Writing Poetry event featuring Vahni Capildeo (star of the How To Read A Poem course and Jazz’s mentor for Figure A Motion) and Rebecca Tamás reading from their work and chatting to Caleb Klaces, senior lecturer in Creative Writing and English Literature at York St John, the closing Altrincham Word Fest event, featuring The New Abject anthology from Manchester's Comma Press, with readings by Lara Williams and Sarah Schofield, and Live From The Butchery, an almost monthly event hosted from their home by Helen Ivory and Martin Figuera, and yesterday welcoming George Szirtes among others. Coming up, I’m looking forward to Rosie Garland’s Nine Arches Press launch – I’ll be putting something up about it shortly on the Creative Tourist Literature Guide

Of course, with the smooth comes the rough, and as October faded away, so too did my tenure as subeditor (and, previously, copywriter) at one of Manchester’s online platforms, the direct result of furlough reaching its zenith and the Government not deigning to announce an extension to the job retention scheme until 31 October. Ho-hum. Anyway, I’m not leaving it at that without some kind of recognition, nay celebration, of the absolutely amazing work I contributed, so here’s a rundown of a few of my favourite headlines I came up with… Caught in the muddle (for a story about a cocktail “mixologist”), Ace of bakes (Greggs pasties, obvs), Let’s get quizzical (pub quiz), One to relish (dirty burgers), The wurst that can happen (Oktoberfest), For cluck’s sake (chicken “event”), In cider dealing (no, not sure), Sweet cheeses (again, nope, give us a clue). Proof, I’m sure, that I can turn my hand to pretty much any topic. Also, I’m here all week…

05 August 2020

Nothing to see here

So (as current parlance dictates) this post jumps in where the last left off: with mention of writer and critic David Collard’s Leap In The Dark. Save the date! I’m one of the contributors to the 22 August episode, which is a Love Bites special, headed up by CD Rose and featuring readings from last year’s Dostoyevsky Wannabe-published Buzzcocks-inspired anthology of short stories and so on.


Thankfully, I’d already had the foresight to dip my toe into the in-the-ether reading arena – after watching and waving at a few “virtual” events, I put my name on the open mic list for the third outing of Flapjack’s Word Central Online on June 25, featuring Henry Normal as guest poet, then, a week later, A Lovely Word, which saw me head to Liverpool via the magic of t’interwebs. (Photographic evidence of my first attempt, kindly hosted by Tony Curry and Paul Neads, is below.)


Other exciting upcoming activities autumn-wise include the publication in PN Review (yikes!) of the collaboration me and Jazmine Linklater made for last year’s European Poetry Festival, and the publication of an article commissioned by Open Up magazine about my reading habits since being locked down or lockdowned, however we’re saying it.

If you can’t wait until September, then in June I was super excited to find a home both for one of my favourite flash fictions and for one of my brand-new poems, of which there is now a fair number. A pamphlet-sized number, in fact, so I’m currently exploring the possibility of getting a book made. I know, right? ‘The Wild’ was published by Ellipsis here, while ‘Guidance Avoidance’ made its way into the rather splendid Postcards From Malthusia project here, run by New Boots And Pantisocracies’ Bill Herbert (Newcastle University) and Andy Jackson (University of Dundee), who said: By Day 67, Sarah-Clare Conlon could declare all shall be surveilled, and all shall be surveilled, and all manner of fink shall be surveilled - and none of us could gainsay her.”


Continuing my self-imposed Continued Professional Development programme, I’ve signed up for another online poetry course, starting later in August. Called How To Read A Poem, it’s being run by the University of York – JT Welsch of that establishment also brought to my attention the York Festival of Ideas at the start of June, leading to me taking part in two fab workshops run by Leeds-based Found Fiction: Cutout Poetry (see one of my efforts below) and Blackout Poetry. Part of the same festival was a great online reading and short film event, called Words & Swords, which featured Mary Jean Chan – with a fencing demo to accompany her poems from latest collection Flèche – and the always amazing Vahni Capildeo (the latter streaming live from Trinidad, I think, complete with exotic bird sounds).

Other transatlantic treats came courtesy an afternoon showcase of “unconventional” (Wikipedia) Canadian Bill Bissett’s work – and the workings of his mind – hosted by the University of Glasgow’s Colin Herd. Colin has been inviting the great and the good to a Zoom room near you, and I’ve also since “watched again” Peter Gizzi read from his Carcanet collection Sky Burial in May.


Me old Verbose muckers Adam and Zoe and now Jake too have taken the monthly night online as Virtual Verbose – I’ve missed the first, with Tania Hershman, and the last, but I did catch the middle one with Reece Williams (of UNESCO Manchester City of Literature, among other things) and Phoebe Wagner (her pamphlet The Body You’re In is currently half price with Bad Betty Press). Meanwhile, brand-new events have been set up especially for All This – at the end of July, I dropped into East Anglia for the latest in the Live From The Butchery series of live online Sunday-afternoon poetry readings hosted by Martin Figura and Helen Ivory, run in association with Ink Sweat and Tears, and that month featuring Matthew Caley, Rachael Clyne and Ron Egatz, tuning in from Minneapolis.


There’s also been a whole host of books welcomed to the world online. Pleased to make it to Aaron Kent’s launch of Invisible Hand Press pamphlet Melatonin Spring Collection, with readings from Man Met’s Andrew McMillan and also Jennie Edgecombe, whose memorable elastic band piece I think I saw read at a PN Review launch at Castlefield Gallery, maybe last year? It’s a rhetorical question, don’t sweat it. Travelled without moving to Nottingham, where Alan Baker introduced new Leafe Press titles Museum of Lost and Broken Things by Lauren Terry and Reading Moby-Dick and Various Other Matters by Martin Stannard. Went to watery Sowerby Bridge (virtually) for the first online Puzzle Poets Live, with guest poet Sarah Wimbush, and joined Jo Bell on her Macclesfield Basin pontoon for a Poetry Society event called Into The Water.

Another Poetry Society shindig was the launch of the summer 2020 issue of The Poetry Review, with readings from Rachel Long, shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection 2020, Geoffrey Dearmer prize-winner Phoebe Stuckes, Moniza Alvi and Brooklyn-based D Nurkse. Closer to home, Manchester Libraries in partnership with Serpents Tail and And Other Stories put on a Writing The North special, with James Clarke (Manchester Writing School graduate) and Luke Brown (Centre for New Writing lecturer) reading excerpts of and chatting about their new novels – both second novels, both set in Lancashire (Rossendale and Fleetwood respectively). Into August, and Nine Arches Press showcased new anthology Primers Volume 5, with editor Jane Commane and mentor Jacqueline Saphra introducing three new voices: Krystelle Bamford, Claire Cox and Hannah Jane Walker.


Loads of festivals have gone online, so this year I’ve been to Hay for Ali Smith’s presentation The Beginning Of The And (I’ve also been to fancy lectures by Oxford Professor of Poetry Alice Oswald and the great Professor David Bellos, now of Princeton, but who was my tutor at Manchester when I was an undergrad a thousand million years ago, giving the annual WG Sebald Lecture for the British Centre For Literary Translation at UEA). Work in translation also featured at the Versopolis Readings and Conversation, hosted by Kim Moore (another Man Metter) at Ledbury Poetry Festival, and, also in the West Country (assuming Ledbury is classed as West Country), I made a whistle-stop at Bath for this year’s Flash Fiction Festival, clocking Carrie Etter, Kathy Fish and Meg Pokrass.


This week (technically it was last week, but I took a train trip to Shrewsbury for the first time in my life on the actual day, so caught up via YouTube), I headed across the Irish Sea for The John Hewitt Society’s Digital Festival Of Literature & Ideas and their Gallery Goes… event with readings from Gallery Press poets Tom French, Eiléan Ni Chuilleanáin and Vona Groarke, who taught me on my Masters at the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing, along with new Associate Publisher of Manchester’s Carcanet Press, John McAuliffe (who I listened to talking to Jessica Smith in episode four of The Rylands Brief podcast. So modern).


So that’s it. As you were.

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'emploi - 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."