Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Audience v Sales

October is full of library readings for me - it actually started in Bury a few weeks ago, and picks up again proper in Brighouse next week and then three more as part of Lancashire's Family Festival. The 'Bedrock' sequence in the book goes down every well with Library groups - playing on a huge interest in family research, life writing and social history.

And of course I love the interest in the poems and their speakers, wrapping them in a larger narrative that turns the sequence into a more tangible saga that always provokes questions about loyalty, existing family members, family politics and myths; the line between imagination and truth. A conversation most people are ready to join in with.

The other thing that characterises these readings is the low book sales. Some of the readings are attached to workshops on family research and people are coming for that primarily, others are attended by people who clearly aren't in a rush to buy a poetry book.

I've been interested in the shift in my perspective about this. Pre-book I loved meeting people and hearing their stories. I spent many years working with people on their life stories and memoirs and earnt a deep pleasure in being that resource and encouragement. Post-book I'm lugging a bag of them with me to these readings hoping that I might shift a few. And so am disappointed when I don't. And yet nothing's changed, not really. People still engage with my work. They're still provoked to talk about their own stories. They still listen to each other's memories.

So my disappointment is turning on my own attitude: while book sales are important, of course; surely the most important thing is the audience - and the privilege of hearing how my work spins off into people's imaginations and thoughts is huge - the candid talk I become part of is humbling. This might not be something my publisher can insert into a column, but surely it is my main reason for writing?

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

The above is the cracking end line to 'The Snow Man' by Wallace Stevens, which I read for the first time last week. It jumped off the page of the book and punched me between the eyes, or perhaps not punched so much as boinged in a tantalisingly obtuse but deliciously lyrical fashion between my eyes, ears and brain.

And I thought the final line rather apt in regard to yesterday's reading in Saltaire. So in an attempt to behold the nothing that wasn't there and the nothing that was, I'll recapture the afternoon:

Beginning with a reduced duo - from trio - of poets. The absence of the third reader, amounting to approximately twenty minutes less, would, we decided hang in the air, giving more breath to what was read.
And so drove for two hours through siling rain and wind across the Dales to Shipley from Lancaster.
There are two Saltaire Bookshops: one a big bright shiny space in the Salts Mill that appears as much bookshop as parquet skate rink. (A new Olympic sport?); the other a smaller carpeted affair, in the mould of traditional second hand bookshop, on a major roundabout. Guess which one we were due to read in.
Not easy, since neither had posters or leaflets declaring the 2 o'clock reading.
One also had no customers.
Aha! Yes. Absence. Nothing.
The (embarassed) bookseller bought a book off each of us so covering petrol costs: a nil nil balance sheet.

A friend suggested it would have been worse if we'd read to a huge audience who hated us. But that would have resulted in a negative rather than nothing so not relevant to this story.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

A Curious Shipwreck

Steve Spence's first collection, A Curious Shipwreck, came to my attention for two reasons: it's shortlisted for the Forward First Collection award (what's it got?) and its title (oh no has he preempted my next idea?).

So I read it.

What's it got? Mayhem. A rolling stream of pirate activity, punk memorabilia, funny remarks on economics, playful references to Alice in Wonderland, great language, a strange coherence, huge references, and brilliant titles.

"When pirates can be recognised
by their beards alone, it's a sure
sign that they've reached cult

Yet for all this there is also a flatness to the book. I couldn't find a shape to the sequence, or a distinction between poems. There is, by the end of the book, an overwhelming world I'd been drawn into but one with no holes or mountains. I guess this is part of the intention: the overall shape mirrors the individual poems - an intense layering of ideas that asks the reader to draw in their own connections, and for this I loved reading it but for this I also was left adrift. I do like the peaks and troughs of emotional variation, or right angles of perception, and was left without.

So has he preempted my next idea? No, thankfully. Although there is a part of me that would love to have written in this style. I love the drawing together of disparate texts, the gaps that made me stop up short and recircuit my brain. But while I love reading that, it is not how my brain works as a writer. I need some narrative, a story or connections of some kind. This style of disorder is tantalisingly difficult. For my brain at least. And as for subject matter, again no. His range is far wider than I could manage or am aiming for. Wider in that it brings economic theory, music, fantasty and myth together. The wideness I want to achieve in my next project is historical breadth, in the first instance, geographical in the second. Which isn't exactly true for the poem I'm currently working on.

Because of this meshing of history/geography I'm working on different forms I've not yet mastered: first off The Sestina: which involves the repetition of six words (as end words in a particular order) throughout the poem. Coo blimey. My first attempt was to go for chaos, for disorder and juxtaposition of elements (less historical and more domestic with a spread of geography). Which didn't work at all, as I found myself slipping towards cohesion and sense halfway through. Maybe the end words were wrong. Maybe I have to reconcile myself to narrative sense from the outset.

I've changed one of the repeating words. I've sat back and asked
Mr Puppet what he'd do in the situation (it may be for him after all). I've turned back to Treasure Island and remembered what it was I loved about the book (the voices/language in particular: "lively men, but careful" was one phrase I've repeating to anyone who has the misfortune to be in conversation with me for the past fortnight). I've put away the first appalling draft and gone back to large sheets of blank paper to rediscover what it was that brought me to the idea in the first place (oh the joy of random scribblings). I've promised myself not to tinker with small changes but view it as a whole. And now it needs to cook.

It will never be a pirate punk treatise, but I'm hoping it still has the potential to be endearing, askew and a tight contained world.

Friday, 10 September 2010


As part of An Elastic Sky Flax022 we're working with Morph Films to make some poetry films to stand alongside the anthology. Partly to build on the films we've made previously - Finding a Language, Vanishing Act - and partly to encourage the poets to consider their poems from a different perspective.

All the poets have talked with the director James Harvey in the preproduction of their film to discuss images and where the emphasis lay in the selected poem, to hear James's take on the poem and throw their half-penny's worth into the mix.

One of the elements I love about film, is how its visual build offers a reinforcement or breaking of the established rhythm, which can create a wonderful tension that might have only been slightly evident in the original poem. Or, in the case of 'Cuckoo', a poem by Jim Turner, they're going for the fleshing out of the subtext of the poem. So, I'm imagining an odd juxtaposition of voice and visual in the final film.
morph films
So this picture should give you no clue whatsoever on the complete poem ...