Writing & Reading

Available from Ward Wood Publishing

Please pick up the latest New Scientist (Issue 23 April) and turn to page 50!  The first (wee, ickle) review I’ve written for NS, in print: hurrah and cheers.

That’s the writing part.

The reading part: Suffering a cold and subsequent sinus infection does one (and only one, as far as I can tell,) good thing: it forces me to stay in one place and read books. This is because I don’t have the energy to do anything else.

So, over the past week, I read Sue Guiney’s novel, A Clash of Innocents. I’m very lucky to know Sue, and so you may argue that this is biased, but I was really impressed. Her characterization is a strong point: Sue manages to use just a few, well-placed, details to give her characters great personality. The novel also enjoys revelling in a sweeping, painterly style to describe the textures and colours of its setting, Cambodia. I’m sure Sue’s skill as a poet comes into play here. Finally, I admire the restraint Sue exercises in telling a realistic story, which, while it engages with a great many vivid, gruesome, and difficult subjects, does not ever slide into melodrama.

I’ve been noticing (and I’m going to stereotype big time here,) a tendency for Americans to need really big, in-your-face drama, and I admit to the temptation to feel that my novel ‘needs’ to include a ‘blow-things-up’ moment. (Fortunately the Herschels did blow things up!)  Some novels I’ve read since coming over here first made me think: hmm, nothing much happens. But I’ve learned that there can be an awful lot that happens in a subtle way. It doesn’t need to be Hollywood. (And in fact I’ve become increasingly sick of Hollywood movies, too, because of the in-your-face nature of the story-telling.)

So, to move on to the other novel I read whilst ill: Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson. Wow. Talk about the art of subtlety. Of having an awful lot go on while nothing much happens. Of having the action, the drama, take place mostly offstage, or ‘before,’ but having that affect the story enormously. And of setting, place, mood. Brr. Amazing. Housekeeping has immediately joined Tinkers (Paul Harding) at the top of my list of Favourite Books, or If I Could Write a Novel Like This I Might Never Feel the Need to Write Again.

So, I hope you are all healthy, dear readers – either way, go forth and read: The latest issue of New Scientist, A Clash of Innocents, Housekeeping, and Tinkers. Enjoy!

Poetry and Medicine

On Tuesday 5 April I had the pleasure of running a workshop on poetry and medicine for a class of 25 Medical Humanities students at Imperial College.
After a crash course in poetic terminology including iambs, iambic pentameter, end-stopped lines, enjambment, caesuras, run-ons, and rhyme (end rhyme, slant rhyme,) We compared and discussed three pairs of poems:
  • Theodore Roethke, ‘Epidermal Macabre,’ and
    Robin Robertson, ‘Making the Green One Red’
  • Jo Shapcott, ‘Somewhat Unravelled,’ and
    Simon Armitage, ‘The Overtones’
  • Don Paterson, ‘A Gift,’ and Dannie Abse,
    ‘Song for Pythagoras’
‘A Gift’ has especially been sticking with me lately; I love the rhyme and rhythm, the short form and the dark, mysterious mood. It was a delight to slip that into the workshop even though it isn’t particularly medicine-related. The imagery in ‘Epidermal Macabre’ is fantastic: this reads as a rather cheeky, playful poem, reflective of the medical images of the subject removing his skin and hanging it like a coat, as in Anatomia, from Juan de Valverde de Hamusco’s ‘La anatomia del corpo humano’, 1556.
Anatomia, 1556

‘Somewhat Unravelled’ hits home to anyone who has dealt with a family member aging and/or suffering some form of dementia, and ‘The Overtones’ is quite a trip: two very different poems about unusual mental states, the latter about synesthesia in a very playful and outrageous way. In fact (tangent,) all of the poems in Seeing Stars strike me as almost flash fiction or prose poems: mini-stories, capsules…they defy genre, and it’s delightful.

Meanwhile, I’ve been astounded by Robin Robertson since I heard him read (or rather, growl,) at the T.S. Eliot Prize, and linked the ‘incarnadine’ in ‘Epidermal Macabre’ with ‘Making the Green one Red,’ through the quote in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather The multitudinous seas incarnadine, Making the green one red”. Hurrah for intertextual references! There’s a great explanation of the etymology and evolution of ‘incarnadine’ here, and you can bet you’ll be reading it in a poem of mine in future.
Following our discussion, the students responded warmly to a prompt to come up with pairs of rhyming medical words, and we turned that into a group game of Bouts-Rimés, where I asked them to emulate the rhyme scheme in ‘A Gift’ and ‘Song for Pythagoras’. Wow, was I impressed with what these medics turned out in about twenty minutes! We had a mini-reading at the end and all in all I would say it was a great success. One student wanted to know where to find poetry readings in London (I said to start with the Troubadour, the Poetry Cafe, and the Poetry Library,) and another said this was much more pleasant than the poetry she’d previously been taught in school. Converts!

Farewell, Flambard

I am terribly sad to share the news that Flambard Press, that wonderful small publisher in the North which has been the champion of new and established poets (and novelists) for twenty years, will close in 2012. The Arts Council cuts are the reason: Flambard did not receive funding to carry on. *

I realised that until now, I’d taken for granted the governmental funding of the Arts. When I moved to London in August 2007, I simply thought, well hurrah! the government puts money into the arts. And I do think this is a good thing. We are now seeing the ‘bad’ side of it: publishers who don’t have, haven’t garnered, or perhaps don’t know how to cultivate other forms of support (rich benefactors, perhaps). Or, as I understand to be the case, don’t have much of an option for that: I’ve heard London’s a better spot for ‘rich benefactors’ than Newcastle. Fair point. *

My complaint, the part I don’t understand, is why the ACE has appeared to take funds from many small presses and give more money to bigger presses. To me, the point of a small press is that it. is. small. It specializes in something: poetry, say, or discovering and fostering new talent. Or focusing on publishing local writers. Things big presses don’t tend to do. The niche presses can do wonderfully creative things that bigger presses might not. It’s like biodiversity. The Arts Council is killing the biodiversity of the publishing world! And I can speak from personal experience that us writing types can do a heck of a lot with a little bit of funding. Would it have done any better to cut everyone’s funds somewhat but not entirely? Would it have fostered more collaborations and fewer, but still excellent, publications? Or would everyone have whinged about that, too?*

My experience as a Flambard Press author has been an enormous pleasure. Peter, Margaret, and Will have been supportive and encouraging: indeed, I feel it was their decision to publish Darwin’s Microscope that made me an author: it legitimized me; gave me credibility to be published by a small, established, reputable press. It gave me the footing to say, I am a published poet. This is not a point of snobbery, but rather some of the formative moments of my development as an author. Flambard Press made me believe that I could do this writing thing. That I should do it. And I love them for that, and I feel a fierce loyalty to the press, and it is a shame to see them go. However, I do know that they will produce excellent books in this last year, just as they have done for 20 years.*

Forgive the re-blogging, but this is a must read: Carol Ann Duffy’s poem about the cuts.