Wednesday, 1 July 2015
Brief reading for the anthology, Happiness: The Delight-Tree, produced the UN and World Heart Beat Music Academy, edited by Bhikshuini Weisbrot, Darrel Alejandro Holnes and Elizabeth Lara.
Lovely event in the Academy which is situated in an old office building in Wandsworth, I share the readings with Mumamad Tawfiq Ali, Shirin Razavian, Gernot Blume (who plays the harp as well as writes), Shazea Quraishi and Greta Stoddart. There is also a choir of tiny children, all girls, who sing two short songs, one composed by two of them. The tiniest one, eyes shining, enthusiastically claps along with the audience when they end. Unfortunately I can't stay for Shirin, Shazea and Greta, and miss half the programme as I have to catch the last train back from King's Cross at 9:45.
It's delightful and a little mad. I read three of my poems on behalf of Hungary. I hope Hungary is duly grateful (Greta is England). Greta has come in from Devon, Gernot from Bingen in Germany. They are staying overnight in London: I have to return as I am doing a phone interview today, a concert tomorrow and Ledbury the rest of the time till Sunday night. My trip from Norfolk is about three and a half hours each way, so that's seven hours travel in all. Like everyone else I am doing this for free, without even travel expenses. My reading is seven minutes long. It's easily the hottest day of the year,
When I go, Sahana Gero - the artistic director of the academy - kindly drives me to the nearest tube, Southfields, so I should have an hour and twenty to make my train (55 minutes allowed by TFL). Unfortunately there are signal problems and the District Line crawls all the way to Earl's Court. Then the Piccadilly Line has a long delay at one of the stations to 'even out the timetable". At King's Cross the train is boarding on Platform 0. I run like mad to catch it and am relieved to find a seat. My lungs are bursting. I remember I am getting on towards sixty-seven and have diabetes 2. I have to stop a couple of times as I run which adds to the anxiety.
This is all a little crazy. I am more than a little crazy. I am downright stupid. I say to myself: I bet Carol Ann Duffy doesn't do this. I bet Don Paterson doesn't. I am willing to bet Simon Armitage doesn't either. This is not how pensioners behave. I might be wrong: perhaps even now, as I write, CAD is running to do a small spot on a free gig, paying her own fare, on her Laureate circuit. On the other hand Gernot, Greta, and Muhamad have traveled a good distance too - Gernot far further.
Was it worth it? The mindset I was born into is one that is always flattered to be invited anywhere and the idea of helping something good happen, even in the insignificant way of turning up to do a brief reading, is an enticement. Yes, is my middle name. But its hair is thinning and its lungs are not what they were.
Perhaps the gods will take that into account when the lungs, or something else, finally collapses 'No, sod off,' they will say. 'That too is vanity and self-flattery'.
Would the event have missed me anyway? I doubt it. I think I read well and the audience seemed enthusiastic enough. Maybe that's the reward, to think of it as seven hours and seven minutes well spent.
But this is thinking very loud indeed.
Wednesday, 24 June 2015
|Travels with my octopus|
The last provocations, on Friday were by the Turkish writer, Elif Shafak, and the British publisher, David Graham.
The three most dangerous things in Turkey, she argued, were guns, bombs and books. Islam respected the sacred book but did not always read it. Menstruating women were forbidden to touch it.
According to Muslim belief each person had two angels on their shoulders: in other words each person had two books in them, one good, one bad. The act of writing was angelic but also regarded as an object of fear and suspicion. This amounted to a cognitive gap. Printing came late to the Islamic world, she continued, as late as the eighteenth century, but even then it could be controlled by the religious establishment. Oral literature could prosper but the written word was under controlled. This amounted to another cognitive gap.
Milan Kundera regarded life under despotism as a tunnel that would somewhere have a light at the end of it, but in a state that was not quite despotic nor quite democratic either, the tunnel could go on for ever. From this point her provocation became a call for writers to become more active. Disengagement was a luxury we cannot afford, she said, oddly mirroring the formulation of the leader of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew who, some fifty years before, had declared that poetry was a luxury Singapore couldn’t afford. The task of writers was to add complexity to simplistic political narratives. They do this through stories and particularly novels because the novel form is bigger than, say, the poem, and can accommodate more. We don’t want analysis after the event, we want it during the event. This was a matter of urgency.
Susan Barker said it was very hard to tell the truth about politics in China and that international reputation was no protection. Dan wondered whether the tendency of modern communications, such as the tweet was not more effective. He point to Andrei Kurkov’s moves towards reportage and shorter fiction. Didn’t ISIS depend on very brief stories? (GS: A recent article in the New Yorker on 8 June offered a long in-depth discussion of the uses and power of poetry in ISIS ideology). Kyoko noted certain resemblances between Turkey and Japan and was worried about the erosion of freedom of speech. Lucy emphasised the importance on non-fiction and the importance of history and journlism. Elif concluded by suggesting that we should all read each other’s genres, that we should elgage with politics. We should be world-citizens without being spokespersons.
This did not mean that the big publishers did not make a contribution it was just that they needed to maintain their balance sheets so an author who had not made a commercial impact after a couple of books would often be dropped from the list. It was the middle-sized publishers that were suffering financially. It was there the battlefield was being deserted. Sometimes they tried to make good by taking on non-literary authors such as Ricky Gervais or Harry Hill but these might not be enough. Author advances were being squeezed at both ends. Supermarkets dictated the terms under which they would stock a successful book and publishers could be sued if they were unprepared to supply extra copies when needed.
The only growing part of the market was that developed by what David called micropublishers: Pushkin Press, Hesperus, And Other Stories, Salt, Peirene, Galley Beggar and so forth, though they worked on tiny margins and had to be very careful in judging their output, and if they did discover exciting authors those authors would quickly be snapped up by bigger publishers. It was a little like the case of small football clubs who become feeders for the big ones. All the same the small publishers were venturing into middle grouns and micropublishing was the future. Crowd funding or Kickstarting projects and community-building were important factors in success.
A brief afterthought:
REGARDING THE OCTOPUS IN THE SUITCASE
*A little Cyrano might help us all. Part nose, part poetry, part swordsmanship. OK forget the swordsmanship. Forget the poetry. Keep the nose.
*The grand rhetorical sweep. The oracular gesture. The big words putting their shoulders to the door. The bouncers letting them in.
*A big hall crowded with people. A word creeps in on all fours and works its way between the feet, stands up, but can't speak.
*If I say it, it will appear. If I add a verb, it will do as I say. If I add an adverb it will act in the best possible way. So it goes.
*The octopus in the suitcase meets the squirrel in the secret garden. It is a day like any other. Now let's unpack the suitcase.
Here endeth the summing up of Worlds Literature Festival 2015. I have not given an account of the many excellent readings because to account for them all would be impossible and to select favourites invidious.
After the Wednesday salon there was a two hour session on translation in which three authors appeared with their translators.
The authors read a sentence or two in the original language then the translars read longer passages in translation. Each author was then invited to ask their translator three questions.
This session was led by Erica Jarnes. The three writers - Geir Gulliksen, Han Kang and Sigitas Parulskis - write in quite different ways about quite different things. The translators were asked the normal but vital translation questions and each answered differently. Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang, argued that the translator should feed the text through her blood stream by accessing the experience described. Deborah Dawkin, who had just one week to translate a longish passage of Geir’s book about gender and sexuality thought it was the original text one should go back to time after time. Translation she said was like acting, a fascinating if unexplored idea. Romas insisted that the translator should know the full cultural and historical context, be utterly at home in both languages, and that translators never never never never improved original texts or, if there were mistakes in the text they should be left to the copy editor. (This concurs with Nabokov’s view of translators as mischievous and incompetent servants who think they know better than the genius writers they serve. Max Sebald too kept his eye closely on what his translators were up to.)
Tuesday, 23 June 2015
On Wednesday morning the attention turned, as it often does, to Creative Writing (henceforth CW for short) and its place in university. Did this relate directly to reputation or was it something quite separate, an intruder in our menagerie? Jon Cook quoted Malcolm Bradbury on the unlikelihood of transforming small talent to big talent more of establishing a significant climate within which writing in general might prosper.
Lauren K Alleyne commented that institutions bestowed a kind of respectabilty in the eyes of the outside world (as for example in the eyes of her own parents). Kyoko Yoshida had done an MFA course and returned to Japan to find that people back home no idea what that meant. She did however emphasise that there existed in CW an ethical contract that agreed your writing, and desire to write, were legitimate and guaranteed that it would be taken seriously. I suggested that not only had writers always met, albeit informally and without institutions, but that before CW started it had been a matter of luck if you happened to come across senior writers willing to discuss your work in person, I also suggested that teaching was essentially intelligent conversation. Dan - whom I had in fact taught at one time - agreed but rightly pointed out the increasingly high cost of such courses.
Note: any name not linked has been linked above in the same post or in a previous post on the festival.
Next day on reputation in India and Lithuania.
|Gabriele D'Annunzio in Fiume|
The whirligig of time was very much the subject of our first provocation, by Chris Bigsby, who started by exploring and expanding on the term reputation, by adding estimation and notoriety, to which others eventually added fame, success, prestige, stature, esteem, position, distinction, prominence. There were at least eight tentacles for our octopus here. Chris went on to consider those whom we now regard as great but who were neglected at the ends of their lives: Hermann Melville and John Williams (who wrote Stoner), among them, but concentrating on the writer he himself has written about with such distinction, Arthur Miller, the estimation of whose work has gone up and down depending on where you were, in the US or in Britain. Was Miller accepted by Americans as the representative of all they considered best? Probably not. Was he regarded by Brits as what we thought a good liberal American should be. Probably yes.
Susan Barker lamented the lack of women among those considered important (importance being another term related to reputation), a problem pointed out in private discussion later by Dave Wilson, who remarked that all the names discussed at this session were white, male, and anglophone. Anna Funder did, on the other hand, confirm the substantial reputation and stature of the Australian writer, Christina Stead. She talked of the importance of history and wondered how far literature was perceived as an aspect of history (or vice versa for that matter). Deborah Smith brought us back to the question of women’s writing and how it was evaluated according to different criteria in different places: in the west along feminist lines, but differently in other places with other histories and cultures (Catholicism and Buddhism were offered as examples in later sessions.) Reputation might simply be a kind of noise, a form of agreement. It might in fact be constraining if if meant publishers would demand more of the same from any successful author.
The dangers of success were (briefly) to reappear in D J Taylor’s provocation the next day.
In the discussion afterwards Vesna talked of “the art of lifemaking”. Others talked of the way suicide fixes the author as indentity, fate and destiny and how it makes us read their works in a different way. Stefan Zweig was mentioned as an example of fame arrested and amplified by suicide. Mishima was another such. Jon Cook suggested that Allen Ginsberg’s public life was an extension of his poems. Lucy pointed to the line from Romanticism to Fascism. Amit mentioned Tagore who became a world celebrity, admired chiefly as a sage and purveyor of mysticism, rather than as was what he was in India: a poet. Chris Bigsby pointed to Mailer and Hemingway as conscious constructors of their own images. Consideration of the image and the self-image led us in the direction of social media. At one level inflation of the self appears comical: at another, venal and potentially disastrous.
Note: any name not linked has been linked above in the same post or in a previous post on the festival.
The next session, on Wednesday, was about Creative Writing. As the first step in establishing a reputation? As a bestower of reputations? Its own reputation?
Monday, 22 June 2015
|Dragon Hall, Norwich, The National Centre for Writing|
I left the meditations about Labour's election defeat last month at the point before the famous winter of discontent if only because so many other things had to be done and because, being so contentious, it seemed a particularly hard thing to talk about. I would like to go back to it but in the next few posts I want to feed in the final draft of my summing up of the Worlds Literature Festival 2015 in Norwich which ended the Friday just past.
As some will know Norwich has hosted this festival for eleven years now and I have attended many of them and summed up the last three before being asked to sum up this one. Putting aside capital cities as centres of all the arts Norwich has been a city of literature for a long time, partly because of its history but chiefly because of the early establishment of the Creative Writing course at the UEA which has produced so many successful, prize winning and much praised writers. That MA course started in 1970 and began to offer PhD's in the mid-eighties.
The New Writing Partnership was a collaboration between the city, the county and the university and was renamed the Writers' Centre Norwich in 2009. This partnership has been so successful that the city, which was already a City of Refuge, was named as England's first UNESCO City of Literature. It is now also in collaboration with the British Centre of Literary Translation, first set up by W G Sebald, and is now a National Centre for Writing with a great ambitious programme. In other words Norwich is a hive of literary activity and each year's festival brings its internationally known writers to the city for the sessions known as salons and for public readings.
Each year the Festival has a set theme that eight writers are invited to address in the form of provocations that can be about half an hour long and are followed by discussion. Last year the theme was Nostalgia (I wrote it up on the blog this time last year), this time it was Reputation.
My task in summing up is to recall all the main points of the provocations and discussions and to try to link them together in a presentation lasting about half an hour. This could be a dry business so it is worth trying to hold it together with some running theme or metaphor. In this case it was an expression used by a first participant at the festival, Dan Richards who, in describing his unsuccessful attempts to sell a previous book to publishers, said it was like offering them an octopus in a suitcase. I'll link each author once the first time they appear in the script (so the first parts will be peppered with links) but thenceforth I'll use just italics.
The octopus follows.
First session and Jon Cook's introduction
It is very tempting to begin with the octopus in the suitcase that Dan Richards mentioned at the end of our very first provocation by Chris Bigsby. It is, after all, a creature with eight limbs and and we have had eight quite various tentacular provocations. Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s biography of Gabriele D’Annunzio, about whom she spoke that morning, is titled The Pike. Jon Cook then spoke of D’Annunzio being drawn to his public as a predatory bird to its prey. Kyoko Yoshida, in her reading told us a story about squirrels with secret gardens. Liz Berry read us two poems featuring birds, in one of which she told us that a certain kind of pigeon was known in the Black Country as a Birmingham Roller, which I first misheard as a burning umbrella. Anna Funder gave us, was it Ernst Toller, as “an animal, a beaked bird with a glossy black head”. Then Vesna Goldsworthy suggested that hoping to be a writer by engaging in literary study was like preparing to be a jockey by qualifying as a vet. Then, at the very end, the publisher David Graham wondered whether he was a fox in a henhouse or a lamb to slaughter.
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth.
But wherever it’s happening now, he ended, it will probably go on to happen elsewhere. I suspect this ease and rapidity of movement has a great deal to do with the technology of immediate communication and globalisation of capital. In any case, as Feste, another melancholy clown in Shakespeare, points out “the whirligig of time brings in his revenges”.
The first two provocations follow.
Wednesday, 27 May 2015
What to say of the 'winter of discontent'? For information see here and here and here and... need I go on? Look it up yourself and flavour according to taste. Accounts will be contentious but it was certainly cold.
For us personally these were tough years. We were very lucky to be able to rent a house in late 1973. It had been rented previously to American servicemen who had wrecked a door and kept a goat and a rusty car in the back garden. It had no phone and little heating. When my mother died in 1975 Clarissa's parents (whose house it had been) had to walk down the hill to tell us. Tom had been born in hospital at the end of 1973. We heated his room with a paraffin heater. Helen was born at home to an international choir of midwives in January 1976. By that time I had had three teaching jobs in three years, the first two part-time. Then came the run-up to the famously discontented winter.
The children were three and one respectively in 1977. My father had remarried that September. Our recorded conversations about the past had stopped for lack of private time. I had somehow (through being the older of the two new staff) become head of a two-person art department in a girls ex-grammar comprehensive school. Nevertheless I was still learning the art of teaching. On the other hand, miracle of miracles I had, on Peter Porter's recommendation, been picked up by Faber for the fourth of their Poetry Introduction series.
That was the good news but at the same time Clarissa developed a lump on the ear that was ignored by one doctor but was diagnosed as a tumour of the parotid gland by another so she had to go to hospital to have it removed in a tricky operation. The removal was successful - the tumour wasn't malignant - but it was a scary and anxious time. I took the Faber volume to her in hospital in the January of 1978 as she was recovering.
But the operation must have lowered her resistance for later in 1978 she caught mumps from Tom and it quickly turned to encephalitis. I was working full time by then and her mother came daily to nurse her. Her fever was high, she was in great pain, and there were times she was delirious. Had it not been for the help of her parents things might have turned out a great deal worse but over 1979 her health recovered and her art - she is herself an artist of course - was to recover a few years later. Back then, however, we were sliding towards a pretty scary winter with strikes in hospitals, schools, in waste disposal, in electricity, among lorry-drivers, firemen, and more.
Having, meanwhile, lost the general election intended to affirm government as the controlling power in 1974 the Tories had dropped Edward Heath and, in a revolutionary change in 1975, elected a woman as leader, which is something Labour have yet to do.
Labour limped on and lost the election in the wake of the winter of discontent and Margaret Thatcher became prime minister of the country on 4 May 1979. Butskellism was well and truly dead. For the first time since 1945 Britain had an ideological government. We are still living through the consequences of that.
I am steering clear of value judgments in an attempt to see what happened and to consider why things are as they are now.
What kind of vacuum has developed since 1979? Why is the Labour Party currently reconsidering its entire raison d'être? What has come to fill the vacuum?