Wednesday, 30 December 2009

A Merry Christmas

I once was talking to some friends - 'I love Christmas' I remarked. 'Have you loads of family?' they asked. 'No...I said I liked Christmas.' I replied. And by that I meant the lights, decorations (the tasteful ones), mince pies and crackers (good ones). Cards from friends and colleagues, those little tokens of affection, friendship and a proffered commitment to knowing someone for another twelve months...and presents of course - it's good to know people who are both close and prepared to get you things you want, or know one just well enough to get a surprise that's pleasant rather than 'what a waste of money'. and large. Attractive lights not flashing apoplectically. Singing carols, lighting lots of candles...fine chocolates (the sort only bought two or three times a year). Cocktails...favourite sparkling wine. Beautiful wrapping collectable for making into posters or cards, decoupage or other crafts. And of course, the catching up with close friends who live a distance off, the atelier supper, roaring fires, the lights changing with the music... Music which starts with a Medieval Christmas of early music over presents, and ends with thumping dance music after an exquisitely laid dinner table...fine food of course, always an option if there's an excellent cook on hand. Extra treats like better olives. Drinks in favourite pubs with nearby friends. Light in the darkness...a promise that spring will come again. The marking of the moment when the year turns to lengthen the days again.
A time when all the ruined Christmasses of childhood and adolescence are made up for by the 'in adulthood, I will...' with the attendant washing up and clearing up. Rituals made, fashioned out of traditions and shaped to one's own ends, one's own vision.
Everyone's Christmas is different, with varying emphasis on a multitude of common themes. Cards vary and swing between tasteful, meaningful, messages of affection and renewal, meaningless, for form's sake, dull and destined for the rubbish bin, cherished and destined for the scrap book, little time spent choosing, carefully chosen, handmade, for charity, or cheaply mass produced... Just for instance.
Much money needn't be spent. This Christmas I made cards and some presents too. But everyone does things their own way. For me part of the pleasure is doing things 'my way'. And of course it doesn't always work out! Christmas being dependent by its nature on others as well as on one's organizational skills! But this Christmas has been good so far. I hope yours has been too.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Poetopoly I

Imagine a board. Imagine some cards. Picture some dice. Take it from there;
You see the square in the corner with the 'Do Not Pass Go' card? Good. Then we'll begin.
You perform successfully at a major festival, having been accepted on the strength of your c.v. and happening to know a trusted performer whom the organizer asks about you. Also having been at a conference and meeting a slam poet who recommend you try for it. The second year, you are entrusted with organizing some of the programme for that marquee. It goes well, two of the poets you ask being quite well known. Collect £20 in expenses. What you don't know is that the organizer in question is thinking of handing on to someone else...they get back to you on the third year saying is it alright to not ask you back as they only have people twice? Certainly you reply, thinking you don't want to pressure them, and have had your crack of the whip. A couple of years later, they have handed on to someone else whom they deemed reliable and stuff, and have retired unwell, from the post. You realize that had you been a bit more pushy, the new organizer could have been you. Much of past allusions and conversations are made plain. You had that feeling at the time, but you thought it would be a decade or more in the future opportunity, not soon. You send off your c.v. to the new organizer thinking it's been a while, and that it would be great to do that festival again, of course you don't mention that you nearly got offered their job. When the rejection does come in, it's a Dear Everyone, not even personalized. Go to jail?
You perform at an event hosted by someone you met at the said festival, as part of another more regionally well-known festival. It goes well - not a huge audience, but one of the nicest, and the organizers are delighted. 'We must have you back!' they enthuse. You never see the promised fee, nor hear from them again. Pay £50 in some sort of tax. The other festival you get asked to as a result of the big one, pays you in a lunch token...for £5.
You should have...been more pushy, got back to the big fest organizer the year after...bothered the organizers of the other event soon afterwards...?? Wear a dunce's hat.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Ed Reardon Clones Unite! Parts 1, 2 & 3

Part 1

At the risk of sounding cynical or worse, and knowing that in general I try to keep blogs upbeat, I reserve the right to 'sound sideways' (rather than off) in this 'third blog'. Being number three I always hope gives it a special license to be as it likes.
I was talking to a couple of friends who seem to be interested in starting another writing circle. I say 'another' as there are already (as there are in most cities) a number of open mikes and like events. A poetry platform, a newer one, a performance poetry and comedy night, a storytelling club, recently a cabaret night...and other formats such as one only for those with certain minimum professional publishing credits. But this was to be one for any type of writing (which sounded good - in Bristol there's one for written fiction well read/performed by the author! with good venues, which sounds excellent). However, having spoken to one of the friends some months ago (when less busy, and feeling like doing anything that didn't involve sending festival applications) I was keener on the idea. By late summer I was wondering what planet I'd been living on to have ever imagined I had the now, I was thinking - I go to the story club, to the stand up/performance night, to the mixed arts group meetings, and very rarely have time to go to the poetry platform - the idea of committing to something else as well every month (on top of all the meetings for work and time to catch up with the other members of the Collective) left me cold.
I did remember feeling positive at one point about such an idea, some time ago, before I'd ever spoken about writing with the friend in question - and I had thought of a couple of really gifted writers amongst my go-round-for-dinner / meet-up-regularly friends. One who wrote a story so gripping that years later I STILL want to know what happened next! with whom I was on a writing MA course, and who never finished, despite having given up a good copywriting and press officer job to do the course. The other who had a sitcom on Radio 4 accepted that ran for a series before the lead actress started picking the script to pieces, and so ensuring that a second series was never commissioned...who really should be writing a fantastic and seminal biography of a key explorer and editing his journals (and being commissioned for a follow up documentary) - as well as finishing her adventure novel for girls...but of course with kids, a job and another two time intensive pursuits or grandchildren and a job and house renovation upheaval, neither of them - tragically - is writing anything anytime soon. Nor did they have time to share it if they did. One really should have won a Bridport Prize, and the other really should have an academic book deal. And I have read a lot of stuff - for degrees, for work, as what I do.
So said this other friend, let's do it - let's start another writing/open mic group. Alright so I replied what I replied because I knew I hadn't the time. But part of what I said was this - (as he's starry eyed about this untried territory of poetry or writing). How much stuff have you sent out? None, he replied. That explains it then. There is a catechism (or in some circles there was) that small zines build up to big zines (journals) then enough big zines mean time for a publisher and just keep sending till the first book is accepted. The same for short fiction to a novel. When I was at college, they said a rough guide was 5 things published out of every 200 subs (submissions). I found it more wayward then that. Say you send around 85 (not all in one year) and you score four hits, then try manuscripts from time to time. The most depressing are the 'oh I could tell you were a poet - a lovely story, but you've no profile'. Great. Near miss follows near miss. The I'll take it next year as I'm full this year, and then going off it in the meantime. High powered work in tiny zines feeling like a waste of time. Work placed next to stuff the very essence of which you were writing against, and being too immature to find that funny, instead painful almost. The slowness of it, the never knowing whether a three month wait means no or maybe. (A recent publishing contract came in after a nine month wait.) The ending up sending almost exclusively online just because of the better response times, cheapness and sheer numbers of varied zines. Sending off only six pieces in a year one time (say that year was really busy!) and getting two published. One six months yielding a 50% success rate - which neither continues nor pays for a single cup of coffee. Sending off an average of 12 things, and reading of some writer published in a 100 zines just within the last year. When does he eat? Have a bath or shower? Exist except for spamming from the com or weighing MS.s?? Some publishers still don't take online zines as proper publication credits. Even though some quality print journals (for example The Argotist and Spokes) have made the transition. And some have ISSN numbers. Sending MS.s then, once one has a decent credits list (albeit that's subjective - everyone seems to have a different opinion on the number and quality of publications required or desired) - say fifteen zines and an anthology with an ISBN, a couple of pamphlets to show you're at least a bit serious - taking a sample; and even a fair fit to the publishing house and the best you're likely to get is the rejection slip personally signed by the insanely busy, overworked and overwhelmed owner or editor. Maybe something along the lines of 'to writers of quality work, we feel we owe an explanation' which is that they have no more space/time/money and hence can only take two of the minimum hundred possible best candidates. Think long odds. Think lottery. The Director of Apples and Snakes was quoted as saying that around a 1000 poets nationwide make their main living as performance poets. So don't imagine that just because you're stage as well page that it gets any easier or that the odds get better.

Part 2

I sometimes used to wonder about writing a manual or guide rather, about 'the scene' such as it is. I used to sketch it out to myself - 'Let's say you've proved you're serious, that you've been writing since you were a child, got a degree in it, probably an MA, went to a writing circle as soon as you were old enough to go to a pub, have sent out work (over a hundred pieces minimum, though not all in one year necessarily), got say 15 plus things in print, at least four pamphlets, say a chapbook or three, have performed at allsorts of open mics, even got gigs, though few enough paying, and fewer still a reasonable wage, maybe have an ISBN number - add some other random credits of your choice in related matters or fields and enough work for at least one volume...Let's say all this.' 'So I'm not talking down at you' is the message here. And what then? It was then that I always lost the will to carry on.
Hope Clark of South Carolina in the USA will tell you 'what then?' better than most. It's advice, good advice - about keeping positive, spamming, seeking new markets, being good at more than one thing, staying motivated, using your belief in your work as an external drive to communicate it to others and get them to part with cash, not as an internal drive to torture yourself with. Recommended information sources and agent's blogs. Another useful thing is to subscribe to Spoken/Written Bulletin S.W., the newsletter I edit. (No I'm not kidding, that's why I started it. Check out the links to the right.) And for God's sake, be good at something else - at least one other thing. It will keep you going against the 'how much did I get paid for that?' or the 'not another publisher saying this is great but we're not taking it!' And of course, publish the books yourself. But don't waste the ink/money unless you're prepared to market them. And if you're a private person with no public side - well then develop a public mentality at least in part or get a lottery ticket instead, because the odds will be just the same. One in a million. Success never finds you - you find success. Unless in such a rare case, that you might as well have won a lottery. Even the best odds are; one third hard work, one third good work, one third luck. But the hard work (assuming the work's good already) will help no end.
And yet - well, don't bank on it.

Part 3

So I guess that's why I'm not keen. What's the point of reading stuff - albeit new stuff - to those as yet unembittered or still emboldened or something. And reeling out drunken tales (well, it IS starting as a group of friends) of sorry near misses, of rejections vs. acceptances, of the hard won acceptances (just as depressing for those without any at all, surely?), of contacts merrily making good money from publishing, rather than teaching workshops, proof reading, editing, copywriting or whatever. Of gigs that never coughed up the cheque. get the picture? As I also said, for a while the chapbook with the work I consider my best has been due out. It is two poems short. Ideally I want to write them at a philosophy conference (in the Continental tradition - the events where many of the others were written). Which (for various reasons) I haven't been to for over a year, nor have any immediate prospect of going. Perhaps I could get the requisite input from reading some philosophy? Although it's the lively debate, the thrill of how the papers are delivered (yes I have been to some unusually good conferences!), the meeting of those whose job it is to research, to think, folks with access to proper libraries! Oh well. But to make time to read some philosophy (I admit I haven't for too long), to finish the chapbook...can I be bothered? I ought to. But, I ask myself - what do I expect to gain? I'm not one of those poets that waves products in people's faces, mentions them at every turn. I often carry copies of the novel (I'm not that dumb!) but poetry? Well aware that nearly everyone writes but so few read...poetry especially. There are ways, I'm not saying there aren't. But I for one find the idea of going to another reading circle, even with friends, won't cut through what I can only term a sense of 'why am I doing this?'.
This post is dedicated to Ed Reardon's Week, the Radio 4 sitcom of unerring brilliance about a writer...who is cynical to say the least. Whose fansites so often say 'He's me!' or 'That character was based on me!' or just 'How Goddamn true...'

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The Critical Writings of Geoffrey Hill

Bloody hell. I was just trawling sub guidelines and online zines for the sake of Spoken/Written, when I found myself at the Blackbox Manifold Online Magazine. I looked at a recent edition, and saw that there was a review of Geoffrey Hill's Collected Critical Writings. I have to admit, that despite having all his published poetry available in print in the UK, I haven't yet read the Critical Writings - not out of laziness, but due to its cost and no longer having access to an academic library. (When asking for recently published academic books at a public city library, I was told that, well, I could order it...yes, fine. If I wanted to hear nothing for at least two months, and after that, there'd be no guarantee, and...I didn't ask what had happened to inter-library loans, just left the overworked and cynical librarian alone as they seemed to desire.)
So I was mightily interested to read this review. It was well written and extremely interesting, by Adam Piette, and almost used Hill-esque language in parts. It portrayed the book almost as an indictment of mainstream culture and the paths that literature and poetry have gone down in the last fifty years. The review itself was a remarkable description of the book, and I'm looking forward to knowing how accurate or not I think it is (fully aware of the irony of writing a kind of pseudo-review of, or at best comment about, a review...).
Another of his claims is that Hill (and I could believe that) sketches out an ethical and consistent code of poetic or artistic honour from salutary critique of the mainstream or accepted norm to moral consistency to rigorous profiting by the example of past masters of history. Piette ends by saying that no one pretty much would or could follow such a proposed example or path.
What a challenge to any admirer of Hill's work, also an artistic practitioner who exists outside the mainstream! Who themselves honour philosophy, history and a differing code of 'ethics'. (Making no claims - perhaps we follow some ways because they suit us, like choosing a degree subject in which you will do better than another, finding it in some way 'easier'. Or make scurrilous justifications of your own position, giving it explanations in tall cut letters?)
But I can't help wondering if that's really what Critical Writings says?? Is it really laying down some holy gauntlet proffered to the wary? Or is it meant rhetorically, as being already far too heavy for anyone but himself to lift?

Check out the full review at;

Monday, 12 October 2009

Different Forms of Art

   I was talking with the philosopher of the Collective, about different artforms, and different mediums and skills within those artforms when he argued that terms such as multimedia art, integrated arts (as in mxing two or more artforms), cross art and suchlike were limited terms. He said for instance, that the things that appeared to concern me as an artist were light, colour, and thread. Thread? I asked. What do you mean? He went through the artforms which I am most drawn to or end up using - photography and gels, and light and colour made sense. As did words. But thread? 'You follow through - whether with mazes, wool, wire...' Perhaps 'the line' then, the line that one can make when writing a single word, or the line on which words are written or typed? That would make sense. And liken it to form (which I would argue was also a driving force). And movement as well, although my artworks/craftworks do tend to be static. 
    'It makes no sense,' he said 'to define artists in the way of skills, but rather it should be by what the inspiration is'. I thought about this, and it made a deal of sense, because when I thought about the incredibly broad brush (no pun intended!) used to describe such massively different kinds of artists by calling them 'visual artists' or even those who paint, 'painters', it did seem nonsensical. To call one who paints exclusively in abstract colours with pages of torn books set into paint the same title as the artist who mashes up rocks into paint and then exhibits geological colour charts of linear pictures to the artist who paints war scenes from nightmare childhood memories? 'Yes...' I replied, musing on the idea.
   So what does that make what I do? 'A light, colour and line artist.' was the reply. I think I rather like that...An interesting idea to play with... 

A Lesson in Art

Part 1

   Lately I have had some amazing conversations about Art. With the new fine artist of the atelier, I have been taken through the mystery of how artists create the view in front of them. He himself paints like a photograph, but of course, the painting of the scene adds some strange gloss of magic to it, the colours, whilst accurate to the scene in question, have a super-enhanced quality, as if seen with the emotions as well as the clarity of the camera eye... As all really excellent paintings of landscapes do. And as I have longed to do. But, in a mixture of diffidence and naivity, left myself imagining that painters just went out into the landscape, and, moved by the beauty or drama or quirkiness of the scene, sat down and captured what they saw out of sheer inspiration, as if merging themselves with the visual world alone gave them the capacity to suddenly reproduce it with a heightened accuracy like a photograph or not, but always catching up what was most special about the light, colour or shapes of whatever it was. As if, in fact, it was a state of higher consciousness or meditative spirituality that brought about the effect.
   How could I have been so lazy? to quote the ever-brilliant-with-words Bjork. The artist the other evening was kind enough to give me a short lecture on painting, and which revolutionized my understanding of the matter. He showed me how artists measure - they don't sit down with some wonderful intuition about how to reproduce distance on canvas or other surfaces, they sit down and measure it, obeying rules of perspective, observing in a mathematical way, the dimensions of the scene before them. If ever I knew the technical aspects to which he drew my attention, I had long forgotten, allowing the glamour of art to throw the dust of impossibility into my eyes, and so make sure that not having the confidence to pursue fine art had a fine lazy excuse for it also. Once he had taken the crippling mystery from distances, he then proceeded to mix up a colour to match that of the floor. 
   Again, my stupidity was made plain. How often had I merely thought that to darken or lighten a colour was to add black or white, putting in too much, or when mixing up a colour, ending up with brown sludge? Before only using primary poster paints unmixed and then giving up altogether? And how come - when he made pretty plain that most people came unstuck by using red for red, instead of adding blue to it, that they made shadows grey not noticing when they were blue, and other similar mistakes - how come I, who had not made those common mistakes, who see the 'purple light under the trees' one only gets in January, could have made such an error when mixing paint? 
   Because of course, with the colour and writing workshops, it's a thing I never do. Always alive to bluey purples, reddy oranges, yellowy greens and the like as I am during these workshops, in order to stop people using such terms and introduce them to violets, blood oranges and olives, and aware of what happens when you mix the colour gels which we use for the workshops, how could I have been so wooden when it came to transferring that knowledge to painting? 
   He facsimiled the colour of the floor, using yellow, red, even a way that I envied. But made it clear, that while inspiration was the motivator to get things right and keep on going at a canvas that took months to do, there was a real science here to fine art. Love of mountains is certainly not - or at least only extremely rarely! - enough to ensure and secure a good painting of them. Technical ability, patience, meticulousness, and more, all were required to achieve the skill and accomplishment which I had - idiotically - dreamt only came from inspiration, and to which I had so long yearned towards. 

Part 2

   It clarified things wonderfully. I now saw that it was a matter of time and effort - and if I put in those things, then I might achieve the thing I had wanted joint-most (along with appearing in Noel Coward and Dario Fo plays! doing site spec performance installation, making arty films and garden design). But when I thought about it, along with a feeling of relief and exhilaration, came a realization. In many ways the things I wanted to achieve with light and colour were better suited to mediums like photography, video, acetate...and words. The mediums I use now. When I thought about the only palettes which I do use, the palettes of the hundreds of words for colour which there are in English...the colours of the stage lights and the acetates, I didn't feel so bad. Or felt - perhaps for the first time, that (now I had a choice! or felt I had) that I was doing 'the right thing', that maybe I am engaging with visual art in the way that I ought to be, and not to chase after skills which would take so much time to learn, in which I could possibly say little that was 'new'...or to know that if I carved the time and will, it could be so, and so love the things which I already do, better, value them more and make more time or space for them. 
   Just as storytelling means that I don't have to be ordered about by a director whose vision for the production I might not share, and have, along with the characters I do love, to do characters in which I can't believe or enjoy, because I don't want to let go in the way that gives you the conviction to play characters you hate or are bored by.
   Yes. It opened a door in the mind that had been shut too long. Grateful thanks to the artist for opening it. Now...where are those gels?   

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Never Alone with a Clone...

Part 1

   And least time of all for doing the things on which one's heart hangs - making new textworks, a bookwork, new chapbook of non-serial poetry, a short story booklet, fashioning a small cabinet of curiosities, wire, leather and acetate craftworks, visual art and craft related pathways, poem-in-a-boxes, making moondials...getting to a philosophy conference to finish a collection of geometric poetry, and finishing 'Porlock and the Monad Machine'. And doing them all to stave off the inner voices 'well - you're not much of a garden designer! or a fine artist, still not professional at photography and your films - minutes of them, such as they are! are hardly worth putting on YouTube! Pah! call yourself an artist??? I thought THAT'S what you said you wanted to do!' To fend them off saying, 'we must do what we are good at, and what's at hand, branch out from what we know, try new things, but never just launch out blindly into something that's clearly a dream, with no knowledge or forethought - it is good to make anything, and I must make what I can and have the materials for - go away! with your impossible targets. Why are you bothering me? Is is not hard enough to sell books and get gigs and funding to support the newsletter, make a living?' 

Part 2

Some people want to do everything. Others want to do nearly everything. A clone or several would suit many folk, especially creative ones. Sometimes I get hypnotised by all the things which I want to do, which include; video maker, actor, visual artist, sculptor, multimedia artist, crafts including jeweller, glass maker, blacksmith, too many skills to list, architect, garden designer, interior designer, lighting designer, set designer, photographer, contemporary dancer, choreographer,  musician / composer, pianist, harpist, opera singer, maze designer, folly builder, shell artist, live art / theatre maker, site specific artist and performer, and lastly novelist, poet, performance poet, text artist... Why lastly? It sounds stupid, but the things that are hardest to ditch or to value are things which people have told you you're good at. Words. Since school people have said as much (though 'recognition' is something else again). But of course things we most value are the things in which we have least confidence that we have striven hardest towards trying to become - visual art in this case. 
   How can one possibly do them all? How can one pull off the Jean Cocteau stunt of making films, making art, doing all kinds of stuff and still writing books so good that other people would be proud to be known for just the one - whether the poetry of 'Tempest of Stars' or the novel 'Les Enfants Terribles'? Some would say that it's all contacts, opportunity and money. Once you're well connected and loaded, it's easy, just to have an idea is to have the power to follow it up...given talent, true enough up to a point. (However that is not to denigrate in any way whatsoever Cocteau's genius. He is undoubtedly one of my own major influences and completely gifted). And everyone else? Well, in order not to suffer endlessly - and uselessly - from a restless soul, I try and combine arts and make little corners and spaces of time to follow up things so that they don't spill over into work, but also so that I don't end up hating work - Spoken/Written for instance - for not allowing me the time to do what I wish I was doing instead. I may not be an actor in a theatre company say, despite my drama training, but I bring all my acting instincts and accents to being a storyteller. When I do get a show on an indoor stage, I can bring my lighting and set up the visuals, thereby pacifying the inner set and lighting designer struggling to get out. I may not be paid for my photographs, but I can put them into slideshows, use the skills to set up shots for the shows, the Collective website, the works of the other artists. The charm of that never wears off. With visual art, I have now collected so much stuff it would be a crime NOT to make stuff! so decals, braids, all kinds of small things are happening in odd moments, encouraged and enthused by the rest of the Collective - one of whom taught me just last weekend how to make willow rattles! With all kinds of things brought together because of the Collective, I find myself surrounded with new materials - leather, wire, fabrics, card, and it would seem churlish not to make things. So, it happens. And the visual textworks, the nearest to 'artworks' that I did during a writing MA at Plymouth U., well they too are more likely to get new friends made to stand beside them. Dance / movement can be brought into storytelling or performance poetry given the right context. Every digital camera pretty much has some sort of video setting - what's wrong with a film three minutes long? or five? It's just getting the shots organized. A matter of making some time. If you felt the need, even a YouTube to share them on! I'm also trying to carve some headspace to finish the Cabinet of Curiosities - using historic design quirks as inspiration... Anyone can sing (well almost anyone!) and everyone gets better with practice. So practice! There's a new keyboard player/artist living in the atelier, and the Collective has a garden designer, an architect, a jeweller, a fire dancer, a textile artist...And what we each have, we all share! Do you know, I think things aren't so bad...? 

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Meanwhile back in the real world...

And of course just after the unpacking's done and you've got your breath back, next up are important e-mails to put off (as so many self-employed folk do), so you handwash some fabric used as a performance floor covering, only remembering once it's soaked in soapy water that actually it DID survive the last time it was put in a washing machine by mistake...not to waste the effort, you throw in a clothe overdue for a wash, thinking it to be a handwash only...then notice that a small hole has got huge and, while wringing it out, that the label in fact says 'dry clean only'...and already that morning you opened the fridge breaking someone else's glass and spilling someone else's food...And once everything's hung out to dry of course it starts to rain...What else is there to do but laugh at yourself? You start the important e-mails.
The post arrives. You open a bank statement - not only do you, regardless of usually being pretty organized, not remember what all this money that's been going out was or to whom, but you notice how little has been coming in. Some close friends have just split up and someone else comes round to moan their head off having had hassle with a troublesome relation. Oh well! Welcome back...

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Serendipity of the Val de Loire

I was seriously busy - had had an important call that morning, which meant the way was cleared for some serious work - including the next edition, but...the next day I was meant to be going away - abroad in fact. I couldn't believe I'd been talked into going away at the beginning of the new term, with so much work to do, so much vital stuff to sort out about the Bulletin's future, and rehearsals for the Autumn Festival show...How could it have happened? And anyway, can't one get enough amusement out of a beautiful region like the South West? I began to look hunted when people asked me if I was looking forward to it - what, seasickness followed by travelling miles in the heat?? And spending more money when the Bulletin had just lost its funding? Were they mad? What, I asked myself, could possibly be worth that? and a huge chunk out of my work schedule to boot! 

   I soon found out. The ferry from Portsmouth set off in glittering water. I joked about telling people I'd always wanted to visit Portsmouth! and the sea was rough mid way. Enough for seasickness which I hadn't seriously expected...then the remembering to be on the other side of the road, the unfamiliar signs and road numbering system to get the hang of - going the wrong way in Le Havre...was this the stress I'd expected? The first place to stop and actually look around on the way was Chartres. The countryside had flown by in a flat huge-fielded uncertainty, like a dry fen without the hedgerows. The Cathedral seemed to be the main feature in a barren landscape. And it was beautiful - not only for the famous electric blue windows, but for the unexpected height of the vaulting, the intricate stonework both inside and out, and the darkness punctuated by the fluting at the top of each pillar being lit up, with some vision. The deep colours of the windows glowed vivid against the unfamiliar gloom of a cathedral designed to keep the heat of the sun out. The famous maze on the stones of the floor, a sensational stained glass studio shop nearby...
   And a day after arriving in the Loire itself, came Chateau de Blois, a marvellous palimpsest of a building, with four distinct styles of grand architecture set around a courtyard. Inside, each room more breathtaking than the last, with vast fireplaces of splendid decoration, and walls beyond description. They were papered - if papered is the right word, with stuffs that the word 'wallpaper' just doesn't seem fit for - like jacquard wrapping paper or huge fleur de lys stencils, or thin velvet, large and beautiful motifs in dark and vivid colours, like old gold fleur de lys on royal blue, covering every wall, every beam of the high ceilings, and every part of the ceiling between the beams. How did it not look like Laura Ashley on acid? But it didn't. It was all restored and finished to be the platonic ideal of regal splendour mixed with fairytale enchantment and timeless elegance. Strangely homely and intimate despite the lavish fourposter beds and epic stone crests, the chateau was quite unlike anything in the UK. The rest of Blois seemed to be trying hard to live up to surrounding such a jewel, and as well as stylish open carriage rides leaving from the front gates, the dazzling church of St. Nicholas just opposite with its fine modern art windows in rich crimsons, the imaginatively lit city walls and staircases at night, it also boasted a son et lumiere at the chateau. And very kindly, on Wednesday nights, even in English! It was entirely in keeping with the chateau itself, as the walls changed from blood red, to blue fleur de lys, to black and white, to rain, to starlit, historic scenes marched past intermixing with special effects - the castle looking like it was draped in velvet with giant gilded tassels hanging down, or a blaze of religious stained glass, or some Venetian palace in neon shades. An extraordinary spectacle. I only wondered that the programme didn't name the designer.    
   The days that followed brought Chenonceau and other chateaux - very wonderful, some like the National Trust with turrets and not so characteristic as Blois. A charming town called St. Aignan, with remarkably engaging vistas of the private chateau's public courtyard, tower and staircase with another excellent view over the town and surrounding greenery, a fine church with its crypt open and full of original wall paintings, no less. Houses, barns and cellars built into caves by the side of the roads, and at last on the way back, Rouen and the misty Seine. A large sign outside the Cathedral said 'This is my studio' in French. It was what Monet had said of the area, and looking up at the filigree of the cathedral and recalling his many paintings of it, and having crossed the Seine with that characteristic morning light, I could see exactly what he had meant. And Rouen was too full of good things and architectural wonders, chocolatiers where they sold coffee pots made of chocolate and had a chocolate fountain! to be done in a hurry, but there was a ferry to be caught back nonethless...

   I thought it would just be a week taken from the all important work schedule. And now all I can focus on is a succession of unexpected images of light on eighteenth century conceits, of chapels hidden in hollows of high churches, and quirky pavement cafes. Speaking broken school French in memory of a special week...Enchante. 

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Re-throwing the Dice

Things were moving for someone I've known a long time - he was deciding to ditch the arts as no way to earn a living and do something else he could believe in - re-throwing the dice if you like, to give himself the best chance to earn some freedom.         
   Thinking about it, I thought that's just what our in house philosopher did - when conventional universities were too narrow and frankly bigoted about dyslexia, when lecturers who disliked lecturing came to dislike any postgrad who cared enough about the teaching to become without trying the most popular tutor with the students, when admin dominated over genuine research, and departmental politics ruled over common sense and the naturally gifted, that was the time to make the break. It was a hard decision to make, and he talked of 'giving up philosophy', as if any real artist could give up their art. But on making everything from masks to gauntlets, historical breads and sweetmeats to amazing takes on ancient and traditional tales, he has found something that helps pay the bills and that have audiences, workshop participants, customers, promoters and best of all, other artists from the Collective, appreciating the other things he's talented at. And as for 'giving up philosophy'...well, true philosophy runs through everything, naturally. He picks up new skills and runs with them, twisting each medium to make his own remarkable creations from storytelling bodymasks to Hermann Hesse's fairytales in performance, from startling wire and leather mobiles to wax sculptures, all the time turning each new skill into a Spinoza-ist 'common notion', expanding and extrapolating it into all directions. 
   As for not sitting about waiting for publishers - it's publish and be damned! because 'YOU must be the change you want to see in the world'! And not dwelling on some academics' attitudes to non-institutionalized thought? Well 'virtue is the reward' - which is one of the hardest things to understand. You don't not cry for some reward in heaven - you don't give way for the sake of others, and before you know it, you'll feel better in yourself that you didn't - virtue IS the reward. You yourself will feel better for the self-discipline and positivity you show - as I've found. 
   And lastly - 'all things excellent are difficult as they are rare' - from the poetry of Geoffrey Hill to the finest Deleuzian thought on the Philosophy pages of the Collective's website...

   And it's also what I'm starting to do - re-throwing the dice, by throwing myself into workshops for instance, instead of notching up a painfully slow list of publication credits which don't pay a penny or instead of performing at showcases for no or little money. I rashly thought this week - it gives me so little back - perhaps I should give up poetry? By which I meant not ceasing to write or perform the stuff, of course, but not bothering to send it anywhere, not bothering with open mikes or gigs that don't pay except the special ones, and things. As our in-house philosopher said, giving up philosophy was the best move he could have made - book length work has followed book length work ever since, each outdoing the last in scintillating critique and original thought (the studies of his on Dickens' novels alone would make him a household name in any culture worth its salt - I'm not joking!). So perhaps, halted as I am with the next chapbook, and wondering why on earth I should finish the two remaining pieces and collate the images...perhaps it will be after all, the best thing yet. Who knows? 
   Meanwhile I have many other roles other than poet, - workshop host, Collective administrator, event management, show promoter, performer, bookseller...and words run like a shaft of light through them all.  

   And as for the person first mentioned doing a course in a vocational skill and going for a new job? Expect a new album out soon...

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Second Strings to the Bow

When Democritus was banished from Athens, he turned and replied that it was Athens that was banished from his company and wisdom - not he who was banished from the city.

   I have to say this is not only how the independent scholar feels but also the poet who carefully chooses magazines to submit to, cautiously reading the guidelines and back issues...only to be told they nearly made it, that the writing was unusual but unsuitable, that it got lost in the inbox, that the zine has just folded, that they'll take it next time (the next edition of course never comes out), that they like your style but have you anything else like it (answer; no, because you've already sent them one thy didn't like, and this was the 'else', that was the point), that they would have paid you for it a couple of years ago when money was less tight, that they'd love to take it but can only take those with s bigger profile right now, that they would liked to have had your work but ran out of space/time/money and...

   So the best advice is to have another option. If you happen to be a great philosopher in an age without an attention span, or write/perform fiction or poetry without a brief or ready genre, and haven't yet found a niche for x, y or z type of writing in a cripplingly overcrowded market, then you can do nothing better than find something else to be good at that people will appreciate you for. And if that involves being a storyteller and slipping philosophy in that way, or using the power of words to write copy to promote arts workshops to festivals, well, it's a lot better than nothing and pays better than thought or art for their own sakes. 

   What's more - think about it this way - it's their loss! Two fingers to Athens then...

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Poets Have It Easy...Part 2

So there I was, presented with this chapter I'd already proofed some time ago - years in fact, as the book on 'The Fold' was first put together by a couple of academics at Warwick, who then looked for some time for a publisher, found one in Palgrave Macmillan, then the department (as they so often do) changed, staff changed, the brief and direction changed, the people in question left Warwick, took a while finding another couple of editors willing to take the book on...and finally the new editors had secured the task, and got back to the original contributors of the book. One of whom was our independent scholar. 
   This time the chapter arrived with corrections and editor's suggestions in notes...some in Dutch. Yes, that's right, whatever word processing programme the editor was using on the Continent, it had peppered the first couple of pages in little boxes - of Dutch. I gazed at it, utterly perplexed...until, I reasoned, anything in boxes like that must surely have standardized meanings which I might be able to work out from the context...? And after a few days, it dawned on me! yes, they referred to stuff like paragraph indentures and the like. I edited it into the required format as best I could. The fifteen or so changes which I had to either change or highlight for the author to change were a task that wasn't the pleasantest or easiest in the world. The changes the author had to make (being dyslexic) were no joke either. Never mind quotes, paraphasings were to be issued with page numbers. Much flicking through editions so battered and read and loved that both covers and date had fallen off long ago...And I sent it off again. Many e-mails from the editor and back from the author about which editions were being used so that he could find seemingly every page and reference match up, later...(and hair tearing on the part of our beleaguered author) everything was finally given the thumbs up. The editor wrote saying that the book should be with our author sometime this year...And then the request came for the contributor's bio. I wrote one, putting the best way I could that the author was an 'independent scholar'...and have heard nothing since. Will I or the independent scholar see this much sweated over chapter appear between the covers of a book at last??
I'm still waiting...

   So, for all the poets and novelists and short story writers that think the waiting and the rejections are just too much from time to time - pity the poor independent scholar. They work harder, write longer books (on the Collective website a single article in the Philosophy section can be up to 60,000 words - there are well over a quarter of a million words of philosophy on it and that was as of months ago), read harder to read or understand books to hone their craft, can be as good as you please, and without an 'official institutional affiliation' can still get work rejected up to the wire...And even paid heads of department who only sell books in the hundreds, and are expected to do a lot of their own promotion, do it for no money just the kudos...Feeling less hard done by now?  

Poets Have it Easy...Part 1

Why is the process of sharing work so hard for the independent scholar? In America the term is better known. An independent scholar is someone who isn't covered by the protective umbrella of a university or institution, who works away reading through many of the great list of books which comprise the history of ideas and philosophy, and essential contemporary works in their chosen branches, alone, fashioning their own reading list from a mixture of good sense and previous knowledge from when they did (usually) belong to a university or other higher education institution in some capacity. They work on writing their own - what to call them? a huge mixture of texts; commentaries, philosophical dialogues, essays, treatise, extended essays, book length manuscripts, some or all of these. They submit to conferences and are often accepted. Conferences are of course nearly always held in universities - some of whom are shocked, when the time comes to e-mail the 'notes on the speakers' - to see the words 'independent scholar', 'private thinker', or whichever. Most carry on with the paper anyway, - it might look odd to turn it down now, some are more objective and have really just chosen on merit, some have a curious soul in the department interested to hear the said paper, others just judge that few will notice/go to that one anyway/at least it's just a live event so doesn't matter too much. 
   Editors of books and book chapters are another matter however. When poets send out work or are rejected because they haven't enough work accepted in some big/crucial print magazines, it's tough and it's disheartening. Especially dismal is to get a rejection that says 'we would have liked to have taken this, but we've never heard of you' - never will either now! thinks the crestfallen poet. But at least there's still plenty of magazines out there, still a large number of high flying print zines, and maybe one will say yes and get the ball rolling. Editors and quality/kudos zines change and the scene usually has an opening somewhere, it's just finding it. Think then of the independent scholar, having put together papers of a quality that get them into conferences where academics come up to them afterward and ask intelligent questions, give thoughtful praise...and then ask the said scholar what department they belong to? It may not be one of the world's MOST embarrassing social situations, but the 'sorry, say again?' after the first reply to the question isn't something most people would choose to go through. Then the time comes for them to chance upon a conference which is gathering the papers for the chapters in a book which the department organizing it has got in mind. The paper is good enough - easily by all accounts, and gets requested. Then the scholar has to get in a proof reader to make sure the text is flawless on the page, not just the podium, and every little footnote checked, every quote agonizingly word perfect from texts far more complex than any heavy duty novel. Next it gets sent out only to come back that the biblio details have to be rearranged like x system, oh and by the way, could they have exact page number ref's for z point in paragraph y? and paragraph w as well? 
   When it's finally done and dusted, and all sent back, it seems now the scholar just has to just wait for the proofs to come in...until the day the editors ask for a contributor's bio. Once that's sent off with a dreaded phrase like 'independent scholar', 'independent philosopher/thinker' or whichever seemed best, within a week comes an e-mail with the words 'sorry, we thought there was room for this chapter, but there isn't after all'. Oh yeah? 
   For the independent philosopher for whom I do a fair amount of proof reading, it was just unreal after all the work that went into a chapter on Kant and Deleuze for a book that was afterwards issued by a well known publisher and edited by the members of the philosophy department of a well respected London university.
   So when I found myself earlier this year unexpectedly having to proof read another chapter - this time for a book on Deleuze and his book 'The Fold' and one which I'd proof read was with some trepidation...

Friday, 17 July 2009

What’s a Poet Laureate for?

Much has been spoken about who should be – before a new one was appointed – or who should have been – whether now or in the past, the Poet Laureate. Questions have been asked about what the Laureateship is for, too. On Radio 4’s Question Time programme, people answered different things, some answers plainly implying that it was something cultural, but without any clearer idea why. One detailed answer was that it was about education and educating people about poetry. But in the outline which they sketched, this educating people amounted only to disseminating poetry in schools. And yet surely that is – apart from being, in part at least, what the laureateship has become – tantamount to saying this is something which we value for children, but not for adults/ourselves. That people should be introduced to it, only to forget about it later and not take it into adult life. But what is education for except to equip you with tools, either theoretical or practical to tackle the world later on?

   If the idea of singing the praises of the ruling classes or commemorating state occasions as Wordsworth and Tennyson did, is no longer viable or desirable, then why not go further back to the history of poet as tribal cheerleader?

   If we go, a long way back, to what are arguably the historical foundations for the idea of a laureateship, we are with the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, and the scops and skalds of the Dark Ages. These wandering poets and sometimes minstrels, had the job of not only spreading news throughout the kingdoms, of battles and deeds, but they were, in the words of Michael Alexander ‘the voice and memory of the tribe’. And if you wished for ‘a name that would never die beneath the stars’, you had to pay the poet! to spread your name and guard your fame. One idea of laureateship then, to have a modern take on the idea of the scop, is an idea that there is one poet – one person especially good at capturing the spirit of a particular place, climate and history, and singing not its praises, or indeed the praises of those who rule it (especially in the current political and social climate) but of why it is different, of what makes it special, of why out of all places it should indeed be visited and valued, or looked at in a special light. Not as a better or bigger or a richer country, but one with something still unique to offer an increasingly homogenised world.

   So, to conclude, maybe the post should not be just about education, not just about showing why poetry matters, certainly not about cheering on rulers or armed conflicts, but making poetry about the nation itself, that matters by bringing to light the unique combinations of the country in question and makes people aware of that by its beauty. If the post was still honorary of course it would not matter how supposedly ‘accessible’ this poetry was either, because it would be about encapsulating a complex society, not the comparatively simple one of the scops. It would be about trying to fathom the rich and many-threaded skeins of what it means to be part of or live in England and Britain without either parochialism, xenophobia or absence of criticism. One poet that springs to mind, and one who would fully comprehend what it meant to inherit a post with a link, however far away and fragile, to the Dark Age scops, would be Geoffrey Hill. Although, thinking about it, perhaps he was offered it and unbeknown to us turned it down, dismissing it as requiring a media presence he wasn’t prepared to give…?

See also;

Introduction to this Blog

A blog for all the things that don't fit elsewhere...