I have spent years listening to other people’s voices and learning ..now it is time to play..so here is the first product of my new ‘writing’ life….prose poem/short fiction who knows…This is a Berkshire boy rendering Raymond Carver’s ‘Deschutes River’ I make no apology for that. I cannot go round him so I will have to go through Carver he such a seminal influence.
It is the first draft of a new prose poem from hopefully a full new collection to be called ‘Backwater’…
It started again……I last seriously wrote anything in 2006 so a big leap of faith or as here slide into the unknown again.
Written on an old Sharp electric typewriter ..I cannot write on a pc or tablet.
I have just finished this book by Will Hodgkinson. A companion to his first tome ‘Guitar Man’ it pretty much what it says on the label. A series of encounters with various songwriters underpinning his first and possibly last recorded work being recorded at Liam Watson’s Toe Rag studios and then released as a 7″ single.
A charming book. As my drunken Rockabilly band also recorded at Liam’s Toe Rag as did a unheard of garage band called The White Stripes everything described rings true. I found the encounters with Andy Partridge, Chip Taylor and Richard Hawley the most engrossing and could possibly have done with more from their interviews.
Overall a worthwhile read if interested in songwriters and the un-pleasantries of trying to form and keep together a band. The final encounter with Shirley Collins and a brief reprise of Bert Jansch leads directly nicely onto his next book ‘ The Ballad of Britain’ which next on my reading list.
Most interestingly the musicians comments were quite pertinent to my writers block with poetry/prose. I found Hawley most entertaining with his comments where he quotes Hendrix..’learn everything, forget everything, play’...and how other people’s music ‘knocked him off his radar‘…..
Part of my new found ‘freedom’ is the ability to find bargains ( both cost me 50p which at 25p each makes it the cheapest pair of books I bought all week) and secondly having the time to actually read the damn things…
So not only are they like buses but I have read both ..the novel yesterday and the poems today although I did not read every poem to the end. I have not read anything else by Haddon which not surprising as he published oodles of kids books and just three ‘adult’ novels including this one…which more a crossover all ages job.
First impressions? Well very cleanly written and pacy as you would expect from a children’s writer. A couple of token f-words and one c word to I suppose tick the ‘adult’ box. The story is fairly innocuous ( will not spoil it ) but the dog stays dead. The interweaving of Conan Doyle and what seems like a Brian Cox series on the galaxies is deftly handled and the illustrations are amusing. As I am not a mathematician I did not check the sums at the end but the Aspergers trait of having to have it as an addendum was a nice touch as was the list of various locations ..Sunderland, Caracas, Swindon etc from throughout the novel a ice touch towards the end.
I enjoyed it but on reflection it did feel a bit like an exercise that pretty much wrote itself once the prescription written. It also felt like it owed a lot to Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole too……only with more facts. Whether it totally accurate re. Aspergers I not sure. It certainly reminded me of high end autism that I have worked with so giving the benefit of the doubt there.
It seems churlish but there were some bits I not so happy about although name-checking my home town as Didcot Parkway was a nice touch and puts Haddon in a small club of writers who have mentioned Didcot in their writing..which includes myself, Amy Clampitt, Marina Warner and Javier Marias..I kid you not…
( It is also 17 minutes on a Great Western 125 from Swindon to Didcot so full marks for accurate train spotting there Mr Haddon although I doubt you spent your weekends trainspotting on Didcot platform like me your family were probably in the Algarve.)
No what I felt a little uneasy with was the characterisation of the ‘adults’ i.e. they haven’t got any..character that is. The token ‘working-class’ father routine and ‘smelling’ was a little hard to believe. I was right.
A swift trawl of web soon established that Mr. Haddon has an MA in English Literature from Merton Oxford ( That means he got a B.A. they give you an MA automatically because they reckon it equivalent of other Unis BAs ..yeah bollocks) and previously at Uppingham Public School..so his experience of work probably from a bus window….like fellow Uppingham alumni like Stephen Fry , Rick Stein and Johhny Vaughan..a toff who also adopted the vowels of the poor for broadcasting…. we not talking heavy labour here. A smart move in career terms though for both.
So he is erudite, smart and lives in Oxford in a nice big house with his wife who a Fellow which in Oxford means silver spoon waiting ( I know I served there). In other words he hasn’t got a care in the world.
The novel is ok but the poetry is pitiful….a poor man’s Armitage. The Oxonian/Uppingham man comes to the fore so his first (and so far last) poetry tome includes various references to Greek Gods and Horace…as well as some utter bollocks disguised as prose poetry which gives Armitage’s recent explorations a run for its money in terms of lightweight and fatuous.
Sorry but if Poetry Review published this then it must have been because he so jolly nice and knew someone. It would not have been published in the real world but then Oxbridge publishing isn’t the real world. Their recent appointment as Professor of Poetry proves that.
So having trashed the poems what about the kid’s stuff..probably great..for kids…end of.
After this experience I have been reading C.K.Williams for some adult entertainment.
The past two weeks have been both liberating and slightly scary. Having jumped ship so to speak from the Cruise liner NTU ( currently headed for Corporate Tax Haven Islands with a monetising Captain whilst flying a pure blue Tory ensign) I have had a few days to ponder what next…
I currently have two phd applications in one of which I have written off and cannot comment on until I given some more information but I not expecting much. The second I much more optimistic about BUT I have to factor in that at my age I may not be successful. Organisations run on ‘outcomes’ and that means long term outcomes from an academic career when done a PhD. At 57 I may not have so much time as others. If that the case then my last PhD application will be done and dusted by Easter and time to move on….to ..what…
Life post-Academic may be beckoning and it quite exciting to meet someone like Henry Normal last night who not tainted by the academic environment. So there is water on Mars then…at the moment I feel like Major Tom having been stuck in a Tin Can for 8 years. I will not be going back to academic teaching..I done that..it over. I would love to do a really good PhD then become a researcher..a reader say..but that it with Academia. HE teaching no.
It was interesting to talk to Henry Normal who had gone the exact opposite way to me. Started writing poetry early then got involved in TV and then started writing again recently following his father’s death. I wrote fairly steadily through the 90’s but the Naughties were tainted by the diagnosis and subsequent deaths in 2004 of first my father and then my mother in 2012 from cancers. That pretty much ended my relationship with Oxfordshire too..symbolically the Salt pamphlet ‘Last Farmer’ went in my mother’s coffin. Done and Dusted….
Until now. I have finally thrown off the mantle of Academic Teacher which I never felt entirely happy with. Especially as the Progressive Rightists Corporate Zealots ripped the heart and soul out of the system and impose what is fast becoming a training regime staffed entirely by a compliant workforce.
I have started to think positively about writing again…and narrative..how it comes out I no idea but at least I have time to think about it. Even the aborted NTU MA was too precious and compressed to really feel able to get on with it….
I had simply exchanged one outcome regime for another..only this time on the wrong side of the fence.
So if there is anything poetry wise left in the tank it will probably happen now.
Chocks away like the early flyers above……I may fly.. I may crash …
but at least I holding the control stick this time.
I took on this present nine month career break (ends Friday) in order to confront some ideas I had about myself. Number one was that I was a poet. Correct only in terms of the statement ‘I was’. However, despite the RIBA Edwin Smith commission, I am no nearer resurrecting that particular career than I was last September. In fact I probably further away than ever. At least I know why now.
An M.A. was not the answer and after much soul-searching I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that the reason is very much about who I was twenty years ago at the height of my written output and also what kind of a country I lived in. I started publishing poetry in 1992 and soon after in 1994 moved to Edinburgh. I had always taken a fairly political stance and my attitude matched in well with the proto-nationalist people I encountered in both Glasgow and Edinburgh. My strongest memory is of reading at a poetry event in Glasgow run by a Communist Pablo Neruda society and being booed when I mentioned I came from Oxford ( following an arse called Rupert who did a poem about the Royal Family I kid you not..maybe a satirist?). I lost my rag and told them there were two Oxfords the one they imagined and the one I lived in full of very poor ex-agricultural families herded into crumbling council estates. I ended up getting a ovation….especially when I read poems like ‘Severed Tongue’.
I and the audience were on the same wavelength.
I have ‘never’ felt that since. Leaving Scotland in Summer 1996 (because I simply could not get more than a few weeks temp work in banks) reluctantly myself and my Spanish partner at the time got the bus back south. There was also a good deal of Anti-English racism – I personally was shouted at in a bank canteen by a young man who told me to fuck off back to my ‘own country’. This racism did not come from nowhere however – most of the bank exploitation I temping in was done by ‘weekending’ rich Oxbridge types who saw managing Scots people like shooting grouse..a sport…hardly surprising the backlash hit those worse off than the worst off..
I also met some of the most inspiring writers I have ever met and walked some of the most inspirational landscapes. After living in Nottingham for 13 years I can honestly say that neither of those things have happened to me here. My writing career stayed in Scotland. It staggered on in Oxford but the sheer class-divide and absolute neglect of what I doing took its toll and it died in a Bear Pit in 1999. This came home to roost when watching the video I made for TV of ‘The Bear Pit’ from 1999 which in post below.
It wasn’t only the blood of bears that leaking into the Oxfordshire grass and clay it was my life as a writer…That poem was part of the final coherent sequence I wrote called ‘Skeleton at the Plough’ after a Roy Palmer folk book ‘The Painful Plough’ (see cover above’).
Council grass-cutter smooth
the sliced hay and clover ferments in warm bundles
in the crest and dip of this depression
a hundred yards short of the churchyard entrance.
The old building has fallen to dust
living only as a memory of a shadow at dusk.
Here the cocks once beat a flurry of blood and feather
and the shackled bears were unchained.
Later those bears danced, shifting in their chains
as the first generator spluttered into life under the chestnuts.
Then it was teeth and claws, a rowdy entertainment of
blood soaked pelts and simple wagers.
The clay beneath this hollow has drunk
up its four hundred years of dripping blood.
It has fed into the roots of every blade of grass
that now lies as smooth as fur
a cloak of lost bets, shattered bones and fears.
I have not posted in this writing blog for a while due to a full-time commitment to painting in preparation for the Lady Bay Arts show in West Bridgford on the weekend of 16th and 17th May.
The actual physical act of painting has made me look at my writing ‘block’ in a different way and also with the benefit of hindsight my writing ‘career’ post M.A. in Creative Writing. ‘Doing’ rather than ‘thinking about doing’ which my writing has been sabotaged by has become a useful tool. I painting again because ignoring theory and influences and simply engaging directly in practice as Picasso says:
“I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”
I am only able to paint like I am now because of time off on career break and I made the right decision in leaving writing behind for a while. At this point in my life and with seven years teaching in an art school and an MA in Fine Art recently completed my head was always in a ‘art’ place. Trying to drop all that and go down a writing MA route was a mistake but one I had to make to lay at least two ghosts.
1. My possible grandfather. If nothing else the MA course laid to rest that particular ghost. I feel free of that burden now. Having ‘revealed’ it I actually made it less not more important.
2. I have to ‘do’ a MA in Creative Writing to be a writer…complete tosh but sadly a attitude that all to prevalent in this city. I have met many people claiming to be writers with MAs and many without. In both cases I’d say about 10% are actually writers….about same quota goes for the rest of the arts. Postgraduate arts academic qualifications are mostly for people who want to impress their friends and a small percentage of students who want to work in academia.
So post ‘academic writing’ which is I reckon totally shot now what shall I do…
Good question I no idea…answers on a postcard please.
The only thing for certain is I will want to do it… if and when it starts again.
It could be songwriting, poetry…historical research..or music reviewing again which I always enjoyed.
As they say watch this space..literally all writing news will be posted here.
As Harland Howard said when songs rejected for the umpteenth time..
‘Always smile, shake their hands and walk away’…..:-)
The photo above shows in their entirety the new poetry books I have aquired since the defining moment of the Salt pamphlet ‘Last Farmer’ in December 2010. The only other books missing are the Helen Mort Wordsworth trust pamphlet and my fellow Salt Modern Voices. I have separated them as I regard December 2010 as a break point between what I have done and what I might one day do. There is no specific intent in their collection. Indeed many are personal connections e.g. Rosie I have worked with and Tony Curtis I liaised with over a Ray Howard-Jones exhibition. Martin Malone I helped with web stuff on Interpreter’s House which I used to help run the web side of. Alan Baker is someone I got to know through the web but not met in person yet despite sharing this city:-)
December 2010 I was 51 years old and had stopped publishing in magazines (not through any great plan) around 1999 which about the same time the well of words dried up. There was a brief ‘dead cat bounce’ in 2006-7 when this blog originally started. Wayne Burrows selected three poems from those written then for an East Midlands issue of Staple and I was briefly an original member of the Nottingham Writer’s Studio.
From 2008 until September 2014 I neither read, thought about or had any contact with poets or poetry apart from the Salt Publication and subsequent Salt Modern Voices TOUR in 2011. This felt like a dead poet reading as I read some poems that over 20 years old! I was also dealing with my mother’s serious illness so my thoughts not really on the task at hand.
This was of course the perfect preparation for an M.A. in Creative Writing! In fact signing on to the course was a deliberate act of forcing myself to see what left in the tank..if anything and in that it was entirely successful. I had stopped serious painting years ago and had stopped writing but somehow I still believed I was a functioning poet and painter…I have smashed that idea once and for all now.
I thought I could pick up the past but the past didn’t agree. In fact when it came to writing an influences essay I floundered then I quit. I wrote the Edwin Smith commission poem during that first term with absolutely no influences at all. This is apparently not possible according to Creative Writing wisdom. Whatever influences can be detected are so buried even I was not aware of them!
So as I wrote in the previous post I raking over the ashes to see what might be left and what I might be doing in the future. I am sure that whatever I might do from now on is going to have be starting from scratch. If nothing else the career break has done its job…given me time to sort this out…no more delusions.This has led to some soul-searching and some interesting insights. Apologies for the naval-gazing but after all isn’t that what most poetry is these days?
NEW HORIZONS…..can the Dead cat be revived?
I have come to a couple of interesting conclusions and this goes hand in hand with my fine art painting career (non-career). When I seriously donned the ‘poet’ cap back in the early 1990’s I was heavily influenced by Raymond Carver and Simon Armitage and determined to produce a ‘democratic muse’ i.e. a poetry of simple expressions and familial history that anyone in my extended family back in Oxfordshire could read and by extension anybody could read. I held firmly to this through my extended stay in Edinburgh and some of that attitude I found mirrored in some contemporary Scottish poetry. I was heavily influenced whilst there by Stewart Conn, William Neill and Norman McCaig. Indeed I met and corresponded with the first two on a regular basis. Left-wing, working-class and place-centred it all fitted and was reinforced by a series of night-classes with Murdo MacDonald and Craig Cairns I attended at Edinburgh University. I felt part of the Scottish scene and felt supported as a poet in a way I have never felt since in Oxford or Nottingham. I think this is because I am a ‘class-based’ poet and that doesn’t go down well with certain elements in England. I am talking about the Oxbridge stranglehold on literary life that leads many to affect pseudo middle-class characteristics in both speech and thought. I ain’t like that my duck.
I also steered heavily towards figuration in my artworks from the mid 1980’s onwards too as the reality of grinding poverty hit home. The irony is that democratic poems and figurative art got me nowhere so I might as well have been an iconoclastic avant-guardist for all the good it did me. Which brings me to the point of this short essay.
My first encounter with poetry was American and Objectivist….through William Carlos Williams I discovered Tomlinson and Bunting and Pound. One of my favourite critics (still is) was Eric Mottram and I lapped up his conversations with Tomlinson. A very modernist and international outlook at a young age. The collected poems ‘Diesel on Gravel’ which collates the first ten years I re-read last night and it starts in an experimental WCW / Imagist / Pasternak vein and slowly adopts traditional forms before crashing through the Carver plain-speaking barrier around 1986. Then in the nineties I became more and more conservative to the point where Simon Smith accused me of being on an entirely different bus to himself.
I realise now that this went hand in hand with a lack of persistence in abstract painting too and a steer toward the graphic and familiar.
I am now at a point in my life where I can once more steer back into uncharted waters so to speak. I long ago gave up thinking that my art would make me a living which the most sensible thing I said since I walked away from my dad’s shovel. I can earn livings elsewhere like many a modernist.
So the image above is curious. I need to move forwards but not as randomly as above. I am beginning to sniff out a route. Alan Baker and Paul Sutton fit into a political/modernist/post-modernist area I interested in..a post OTHER anthology kind of sea Andrew Taylor also swims in.
Matt Merritt I found fascinating because he not embedded in academia. He also referred to Tomas Transformer who I hadn’t thought about since Edinburgh. I was heavily influenced by Robin Fulton and he had deep Scandinavian connections. These are the horizons I lost in Oxford. I ignored poetry and poetry ignored me in Oxford because it was locked behind steel wire and bricks. I once conned my way into a Les Murray reading inside a University building but I was treated like dog-mess on the pristine undergrad’s shoes. Being a University employee was to be a minion and one was always kept in one’s place…..always second in line basically.
Here are two of Fulton’s books and the Bloodaxe Transtromer collected collection translated by Fulton from 1987. I also include Nicholson’s majestic ‘Poem, Purpose and Place’ from my Scottish days too:-)
Now I have always had a problem with being a ‘poet’.
I come from a straightforward working class council estate background and the only thing worse than being a poet there was becoming a ‘fine artist’ so I killed two birds in one bush there then with my double non-career. I remember digging up a Xmas Tree with my dad in my 30s and a farmer asked my dad what I did to which he replied ‘artist’. The farmer replied ‘Oh Aye they’re all dead or gay aren’t they’ which just about sums it all up….my dad said nowt….just dug up the tree.
So forgetting that I wasn’ t meant to be a poet but a bricklayer (my dad never got over that) I was introduced to poetry at my fine art course under ‘complementary studies’ and bought my first poetry books (Heaney and Hughes Faber paperbacks). I even witnessed a living poet when Adrian Henri came to give a talk, which was unforgettable, as we decamped from Alexandra Palace art school to the park outside and much wine was drunk.
A seed had been planted and suffering from London withdrawal symptoms and no job in 1982 I was back home and visited my local library. I came across the Donald Hall American Poetry anthology and another book with William Carlos Williams in and that was that I was hooked. What is more with no money and no studio making art was far away and here was something I could ‘have a go at’ with a pencil.
I then wrote poetry off and on until 2000 (most intensely in the years with no art studio) and then again briefly in 2006-7 which was the three poems published in Staple. However having finally put my art archive online I have realised that, a bit like songwriting, poetry filled in a gap when I not creating art which from Foundation Course in 1977 onwards until 1990 had been my main focus.
Which brings me to now and all that happened since last September. The coincidence of my first ever paid poetry commission and starting the Creative Writing M.A. was dysfunctionally apt….I immediately concentrated on the commission and I think did quite well in fulfilling that brief and promptly screwed up the M.A.
Well I say screwed up , other parties gave me a more than helping hand (not at Clifton nor anything to do with CW I may add) which may come out in due course depending on the probability of a lawsuit ensuing.
So here I am 56 years old. One small pamphlet to my name through Salt and wondering whether to carry on writing poetry. A strange place to be. I am doing the right things. Attending the writer’s studio poetry monthly session, Stanza meetings (last one excellent) and seeing live poets at Jazz and Poetry (D.A.Prince and Tony Roberts both excellent) and Totally Wired evenings (more for the student crowd but equally good readers).
But…….my mind at the moment firmly fixed on painting again for the first time in a very long time. What is more one of the reasons I gave up on CW M.A. was the feeling that the time off until June should be used in my studio whilst I have one. Too many times in my life I have not had the space to work in as a fine artist. For once I have chosen to use it whilst it there. Then the same day as I start drawing I write a poem….DOH. Not a poem in the way I have written before and whatever poetry I might write in the future will not be like the past.
The poet I was is buried along with the Salt pamphlet in my mother’s grave. I cannot go back. I cannot write like that any more.
The times they have changed. Whatever comes next is starting in the Iggy Pop poem below. I no idea if it will last this time. Maybe all along it was just a substitute for another art form..we’ll see 🙂
The images just a bit of my inner Mod coming out 😉
Paradise is a gold throw on a white leather sofa
Under the buttocks of a call-girl blowing a footballer
Indiscretion is a national pastime after cup-cake baking
Facebook ramming lives with other people’s misfortune
Clear-eyed dreams of making it with the boys in the band
Dissolve in bleary orgies in the back of a camper van
Parrots and lizards scamper under screen saver skies
As the magpie landlords eye their prosperous finds
While celebrities promote books they never saw penned
As the cut crystal tinkles with the fizz of the vanity press
Screenwriters shuffle stories that have already been spent
Suggesting that our culture is bleeding to death
The tethered ox offers its throat to the knife
The Sun will always shine on the shittiest life.
In the vacuous naughties the affluent thrum
Their chubby fingers on the card-less tills
As the slippery accountants of PWC and RBS swill
Their caviar down with Vive Cliqout at the parliamentary bash
The air is full of Quangos and insider trading slang
As the parade of yesterday’s entertainers head for the tank
Never have so few been made rich by so many
Gated compounds reek of the stench of money
Whilst out in the gutter the poison rain flecks
The sequined shoes of the stars as the homeless wretch
Wherever a buck can be made from a paedophile story
With a false ID the hacks tear at the fraudulent lying
Satellites spin, click every channel is a Clear Sign
We are all Poundland remainders now buried alive
I knew Armitage had written something called Poundland (It is actually one of the worst poems ever written full of fake poetese..yuk) so I was going to change the title of these ‘mock’ sonnets especially as he famously wrote bad sonnets in ‘Book of Matches’ and has been duly punished by being doomed to the GCSE Revision Pages of the internet forever more. However as I will not be the last bad sonneteer I thought fuck it here they are…rants in other words as we approach the shittiest election in years…
Too much thinking fucks you up
Too much time slips through the cracks
Worrying about the rain, the funerals
The way the poplar trees creak in the wind
And all along the drip of ice melting off
The corrugated asbestos roof a metronome
The beat of a disillusioned parade
Spinning through a muddied field outside Berlin
The piano disintegrating under the 400 blows
Of a clown and Judy Garland’s axes
Through the wires and chords
The splinters of a life fading away
I was 17, Lust for Life, in a rack at Woolworth
I bought it although it was so warped it didn’t play
Spinning on a tweed covered second-hand record player
Hidden inside a wooden sideboard it rattled the china
The Passenger woozy and stumbling into a Motown beat
The future on a plate, disintegrating in the shooting match.
Finally like a chord wrenched from a broken piano a new poem. I think. I not sure any more if I actually am a poet. Whether poetry even worth writing in the U.K. at this time as it seems to me to have become a sport for the white middle-classes and to be slowly suffocating in academic rules and careerism. I always felt distanced from anything remotely resembling a British novelist scene. That to me was pure drawing-room from the get go with a few notable exceptions e.g. Ballard, Sinclair etc but most of what I see paraded in Waterstones fiction section I’d rather see pulped to be honest. Apart from helping second-incomers pay off their mortgages or buy a nice cottage in Cornwall I don’t see the point. Now poetry has gone the same way…
The poetry I felt part of has disappeared under the weight of participants..many good and talented ..but for me hugely boring. I felt attracted to iconoclasts and outsiders…politically motivated poets of region. I don’t see that any more in fact I see careerist tick-boxing on a scale that would make a fine-artist with a wad of ACE forms blush…..so what has happened…is it the internet? The everybody can do it mentality when patently most cannot..sorry that not CW PC speak but I don’t buy into the revise enough times you will get it right school. In fact I increasingly believe in less revision is better.
I may be wrong but if so why do I feel so miserable whenever I see yet another worthy but dull white middle-class poet read?
As a counter-blast here a poem about smashing pianos and other things….
First version hand-written in one go whilst listening to music. Second as written directly to facebook ( a well known literary outlet) and finally posted here and removed from facebook.
Not the way you told to do it in a CW class maybe ..well fuck it it’s the only way I can write. It may be rubbish who knows. It’s this or nothing…and I mean nothing…I that far away from writing right now.
Smashing Pianos is how I feel.
In fact looking at the poem again ( It was deliberately written in a semi-trance whilst thinking about other things to try and unlock something other than bland formal concision). I realise it all about the sentiments above.
It is about the futility of being a ‘working-class’ poet in a middle-class scene. A real working-class council-estate chavvy poet. The kind of poet some younger middle-class poets have been attacking lately for ‘parading’ their working-classness for fuck’s sake as part of the attacks on David Harsent and Simon Armitage. Yes being brought up poor is now a stigma in poetry circles…..that subject is no longer required..in fact we have all moved on..gender politics, feminism, animal liberation they fine ..but male, left-wing class-based politics that not allowed any more…it so 2oth century darling.
That’s fine if we in turn are allowed to point out the dire middle-classness of poems about Daddy’s Bermudan holiday or how wonderful France is…or is that somehow OK? Is it also a fact that a majority of white middle class poets under 30 choose poetry as a life vocation or profession, a bit like being an architect, and can only afford to study and crawl up the academic league ladder of riches and fame because of money made from Thatcher’s Britain?Is part of being a citizen of Cameron’s state being allowed to say what one likes if one has money only?
Julie Walters said recently that there would be no working class RADA actors soon…the same applies to all the visual arts and poetry too. The marginal and the poor are being squeezed to the edge of everything…taking away a voice is the first step in eradicating a ‘problem’…….ask Tony Harrison..he quoted Arthur Scargill’s father in ‘The School of Eloquence’ from V…..nothing changed but the hands on the dictionary….
The epigraph to Tony Harrison’s long poem v. is a quote from Arthur Scargill, the miners’ leader:
‘My father still reads the dictionary every day. He says your life depends on your power to master words.’
For a poetry workshop tonight I have selected four poems from across ‘Rhymin Simon’s’ illustrious career to see if Stannard was just a sour-puss and lo and behold this is what I found.
THE TYRE (from Cloudcookooland 1997)
A poem from his middle period I guess. Displays the usual ‘prosaic’ subject matter in first stanza, skips to ‘what might happen’ in stanza 2 and then drifts off into transcendental hogwash in the third stanza although I am sure there are readers who find it sublime. I don’t.
In fact I find the whole thing confected and unbelievable. He has obviously never done a labouring job or worked on a farm because his ‘tyre’ is made up. No farmer would leave an expensive bit of kit like that lying around and secondly it would if containing water be too heavy to lift. Anybody who close to the land would know that. Further there is no ‘real’ location nor identifiable others..in other words it fiction.
No this is a typical Armitage confection. Take an object and build a’narrative’ around it (like the penny.etc etc). This fitted in well with the Glyn Maxwell school of narrative poems that Poetry Review editor Peter Forbes (New Generation maestro and who put them both on the cover -see above) was engineering. Back in the late 1980s he came to a workshop I attended in Islington raving about Maxwell, himself and Byron as all parts of the new longer poem movement…Armitage fitted in well and indeed pretended to be Auden to Maxwell’s Isherwood.
Now this is where things get interesting. If one takes the poem and simply let the sense determine line-break we find a far shorter and far more conventional poem ‘chopped’ into a longer form. Stannard is spot on Armitage is obsessively iambic and 10 syllable to line then plods duly on. Here the original and my edited version.
Just how it came to rest where it rested,
miles out, miles from the last farmhouse even,
was a fair question. Dropped by hurricane
or aeroplane perhaps for some reason,
put down as a cairn or marker, then lost.
Tractor-size, six or seven feet across,
it was sloughed, unconscious, warm to the touch,
its gashed, rhinoceros, sea-lion skin
nursing a gallon of rain in its gut.
Lashed to the planet with grasses and roots,
it had to be cut. Stood up it was drunk
or slugged, wanted nothing more than to slump,
to spiral back to its circle of sleep,
dream another year in its nest of peat.
We bullied it over the moor, drove it,
pushed from the back or turned it from the side,
unspooling a thread in the shape and form
of its tread, in its length, and in its line,
rolled its weight through broken walls, felt the shock
when it met with stones, guided its sleepwalk
down to meadows, fields, onto level ground.
There and then we were one connected thing,
five of us, all hands steering a tall ship
or one hand fingering a coin or ring.
Just how it came to rest where it rested, miles out, miles from the last farmhouse even,
was a fair question. Dropped by hurricane or aeroplane perhaps for some reason,
put down as a cairn or marker, then lost. Tractor-size, six or seven feet across,
it was sloughed, unconscious, warm to the touch,
its gashed, rhinoceros, sea-lion skin nursing a gallon of rain in its gut.
Lashed to the planet with grasses and roots, it had to be cut. Stood up it was drunk
or slugged, wanted nothing more than to slump, to spiral back to its circle of sleep,
dream another year in its nest of peat.
We bullied it over the moor, drove it, pushed from the back or turned it from the side,
unspooling a thread in the shape and form of its tread, in its length, and in its line,
rolled its weight through broken walls, felt the shock when it met with stones, guided its sleepwalk down to meadows, fields, onto level ground. There and then we were one connected thing,
five of us, all hands steering a tall ship or one hand fingering a coin or ring.
It is a very dull iambic pentameter with very basic rhymes nothing more…and I think he got it from Auden…..it is ‘As I walked out one evening’…ba de dum ba de dum ba de dum ba de dum.
I have tried this with all four poems and it works on all.
He seems incapable of avoiding this constant beat…or using any other register.
Most worryingly even the mock Sonnets of Book of Matches which so beloved of our schools worksheeting teachers has exactly the same plodding inevitability. He himself did not claim they sonnets they just aped the 14 line length BUT…..they have nothing of a true sonnet about them at all…Wyatt would turn in his grave..there no subtlety here at all..Professor of Poetry? What for?
This is what the poem ‘POEM’ actually made of…..
Ba de dum ba de dum ba de dum ba de dum….
when he cannot find a full rhyme a half rhyme will do it seems……
And if it snowed and snow covered the drive he took a spade and tossed it to one side.
And always tucked his daughter up at night And slippered her the one time that she lied.
And every week he tipped up half his wage. And what he didn't spend each week he saved.
And praised his wife for every meal she made.And once, for laughing, punched her in the face.
And for his mum he hired a private nurse.And every Sunday taxied her to church.
And he blubbed when she went from bad to worse.And twice he lifted ten quid from her purse.
Here's how they rated him when they looked back: sometimes he did this, sometimes he did that.
Once you hear this dull rhythm it hard to get out of one’s mind which I think why Stone Stanzas so successful. Because he was working with a shorter line and one which had to be sculpted in stone which he could not drag on ad nauseum he had to change rhythm perhaps for the first time and break the Armitage Stomp….
From Stone Stanzas
The sky has delivered
its blank missive.
The moor in coma.
Snow, like water asleep,
a coded muteness
to baffle all noise,
to stall movement,
After testing his theory I can wholeheartedly agree with Martin Stannard that we have a leaden fairly unimaginative Poet Laureate elect on our hands but how he got to be in that position is far more about poetry and politics than any fault of the man himself.
He is a good performer, a very good and media savvy spokesman for poetry but as a poet…he just isn’t that good in my opinion and I think Stannard amidst the rancour has finally found him out which is what good criticism does it makes you look again.
'The Martian Owl' Photo Credit: Paul Wolfgang Webster
This post brings together some thoughts I posted online today in response to the attention being given a negative review posted on the Stride website by poet and critic Martin Stannard of the newly published ‘Paper Aeroplane: Selected Poems 1989-2014.
I had been writing quite experimental poetry through the 1980’s since art college most obviously influenced by William Carlos Williams and Boris Pasternak. Like my abstract painting it was not ‘user friendly’ and nor was I.
Then in 1986 I discovered Raymond Carver’s effortless and readable poems and he became my biggest influence. I also read Simon Armitage’s Slow Dancer pamphlet not because I had heard of him but because I was interested in anything John Harvey published. He was the man after all that had published a Slow Dancer with Carver’s photo on the cover that led to me submitting to him.
I liked that pamphlet and also read his first Bloodaxe book ‘Zoom’. Rather than feeling overawed by Armitage’s talent for a winning and entertaining line I actually found it inspiring that someone from ‘my background’ and using day to day sayings and colloquialisms could garner so much attention. I may subconsciously have been thinking of that first pamphlet ‘The Walking Horses’ when I wrote ‘The Ice Horses’ although to me Carver was far more important. So in those days I was a fan not a detractor.
Ironically I then read on the same bill at the Rising Sun Institute in Reading in 1992.
I don’t remember anything much apart from Simon Armitage’s awful Hawaiian shirt and his asking the arts officer to pay him quickly as he had a mortgage. That struck me because I was unemployed and living with my parents and nowhere near mortgage land. He was a different animal to me even then.
Since then Armitage has simply been there all this time but not on my shelves.
I therefore have no real contemporary knowledge of his work to draw on.
Since the early 1990s I have never managed to earn a living from poetry or any art form. Armitage must be one of the few poets in England that has been that successful that he could probably live off his poetry alone. That may well be the source of the antagonism that he provokes from other poets but jealousy is not criticism.
Martin Stannard Review – The Hand Grenade
Which nearly 23 years later brings us to Stannard’s review and to the traditional first go at the tome to be judged by..The Selected. 1989-2014 covers everything from his first Bloodaxe book ‘Zoom’ to now. Because of the kerfuffle I feel inspired to buy it despite the cover.I have only my memories of those early works and an awareness of his very public profile to go on so this not another review.
I think the only things I have read by him since the 1990s would be the Vinyl Collecting pieces from The Observer he did for a while which were a bit nondescript and I do own the ‘Gig’ book but never felt inspired to read it as it looked to me to be a bit of vanity publishing.
I have never had an opinion about his career other than he got lucky hit the moment just like some other lucky working-class bleeders (Damien Hirst) and once ‘famous’ he never lost the right to churn out books. I have read reviews over the years and watched his reputation rise and fall, never dipping below hugely admired as far as I can tell. I may have missed more critical opinions as I have not been focusing on poetry.
I was surprised then today by the venom attaching itself on facebook to a ‘negative’ review of Rhymin Simon and have reacted. The surprise the more heartfelt because I don’t think I have ever read a negative review of the man. Which shows how deeply embedded in ‘National Treasure’ territory he has become. Like Ian McMillan they are cheeky chappy working class media ‘poets’ but does that mean because popular they beyond criticism?
In my opinion Martin Stannard makes a hash of his critique because he adds so much personal detail he manages to throw himself on his own grenade. If one ignores the 23 years of rightful indignation ( which I admit I have sympathy for) that the rewards of poetry are thin and get spread even thinner when dumped on a lucky few there is some very good and insightful and damaging points being made. That is what criticism should do. Criticise…
Stannard is not a fan and to be fair appears never to have bought into the work.
To paraphrase Stannard he says that Armitage has played a one-card poetry trick for almost 25 years. In the rare case where he tries something else like ‘Stone Stanzas’ he reveals a depth mostly missing from his O Level syllabus grist. Stannard has analysed his line and thinks it is repetitive in the extreme being almost solely based on a 10 syllable metronomic beat. To me this element of the review is good closely read ‘criticism’ from Stannard and personal opinion has nothing to do with it. According to Stannard there is little or no real adventure over his career and when he attempted prose-poetry it was a mistake. For someone held up as the Professor of Creative Writing at Sheffield University (a post he given I presume because of his published work not his academic status) this is a very harsh criticism but Stannard needs to rewrite or write again with a cooler head to make this criticism stick.
I say respect Armitage’s early originality and the good stuff including the Stone Stanzas. Let us recognise his faltering middle years if that true and make any real criticism coherent and less personal. Including from myself! I will try and review the book objectively if I get hold of a copy.
I do think British poetry needs more than a cheeky grin and admirable technique and that my personal opinion and it can apply to other ‘media’ poets too like Ian McMillan……for me it needs grit and experiment too. Peter Reading and Ken Smith where are you when we need you most?
As for lovely northerners I will stick with Basil Bunting and he didn’t do cuddly:-)
In 1963-4 Raymond Carver left the Iowa Writers Workshop..he drove to Sacramento. I have just metaphorically done the same only I don’t have a car and cannot drive (his was a battered Chevrolet not a Cadillac by the way).
I hinted at this news in previous posts but now as the paperwork almost complete I can say it.
I have left the NTU Creative Writing course. I completed one term.
The previous Fine Art M.A.was too recently completed. Too many personal politics and career questions clouded my decision-making (a hangover from various complications within the School of Art and Design). Most of all I simply couldn’t face yet more modern educational tick-boxing (we call it learning outcome grids, I know I have written and marked hundreds of them) when all I wanted to do was write and make stuff. I didn’t feel like I had left work at all and I was paying for it. Not a good feeling. I really enjoyed David Belbin’s rigorous ‘prose poem’ classes and most of the core lectures.
I simply made a mistake by pursuing yet another M.A. within my own institution but this decision was shaped by practicalities and mostly financial considerations to do with travel. I originally looked at Sheffield University and Hallam and even Lincoln. I didn’t consider Nottingham University because I felt that would be undermining NTU to go there.
In the end I simply didn’t feel comfortable in a class mostly 30 years younger to be honest. I was swimming upstream in muddy water from the get-go a bit like one of Carver’s fish ( see a poem below written in 1989 before most in class were born!). I wish all the class and their tutors every success and look forward to the Anthology launch:-)
The experience has helped me determine that I am not an ‘academic’ poet. Never was and never will be. I may be an academic art researcher we shall see.
I now attend monthly poetry sessions at the Nottingham Writers Studio and feel far more relaxed and creative. In all other respects things have been going very well and I could not be happier.
I intend to create as much ‘stuff’ as possible in the next few months I have left on ‘career break’ before returning to NTU SAD in July 2015.
There more than one way to catch a fish after all…
The image above is a cover of a self-made booklet of poems I made in 1990 when working at The London Poetry Library it is in their collection it is titled ‘Diesel on Gravel’
Its title and its contents reflect my discovery of Carver in 1985 through his book ‘Fires’. It contains a poem ‘Searching for a tomb’ which relates directly to the A.E.Coppard story told in another post here http://www.shaunbelcher.com/writing/?p=1071 Neither of us knew who that particular fish was then…
The one thing I have done properly whilst on the course, even if it made for a ‘bad’ essay, was excavating and confronting the Coppard ‘legacy’ if there is one. It was good for me to do it. I finally discovered new facts about him and read his work properly. That ghost is now laid to rest somewhere in an Oxfordshire graveyard.
Time to move on…
Which wraps everything up nicely.
Here the poem:
Searching for a tomb 1989
Sun shone warm on the bonnet
as we pulled up the gravel drive.
The old rectory stood deserted.
The congregation had been dwindling
these five years and twenty.
My father’s wellington’s flap
as he strides off through the wet grass.
I have a photo of him
sitting in his stepfather’s arms
holding a team of horses
pulling a plough aged about ten.
Here we are
Two figures caught in the open.
Standing in a churchyard.
Little Wittenham, Oxfordshire
On a frosty November evening.
My father is circling the headstones
and green iron crosses, looking.
A flock of doves twist and jink
in the blue air above us.
We stare down like two men on a bridge.
Staring into clear and shallow sunlit water
searching for the shadow of a fish.
The father he has never seen.
The grandfather I will never meet.
To celebrate tonight’s news here the background to the track…here the original slip of paper I wrote it on….plus a note on reverse mentioning the song ‘Satisfied Mind’ maybe for ‘feel’. I never recorded it as far as I can tell.
Sunday 21st October 2001
A blank week in diary…aged 42 and still working at St. Catherine’s Library Oxford University as a library assistant for £14k full time in 2001. About to resign following a miserable year rebounding from a relationship of 7 years with a Spanish woman.
I was in a quiet time writing….and here it is.
Inspiration is a funny thing…the song came from the sky literally….
I know that because I date everything. Written on a small piece of paper no more than a post-it note. Almost the whole lyric written in one go no edits. Then transferred to an archive where Claudia Scott found the following in 2003 when I putting together The Moon Over the Downs charity disc for my father after he was diagnosed with cancer. (Full album available to listen to on Bandcamp at http://www.trailerstar.bandcamp.com )
Here the ‘official’ online version Claudia found I not sure if I amended to ‘my dear’ or Claudia did.
THE DEVIL’S HOUSE
I LIVE IN A HOUSE ON TOP OF A HILL
I’VE BEEN HERE FOR YEARS AND I’M HERE STILL
AND I WATCH YOU EVERY DAY YOU GO BY
EVERY DAY OF MY LIFE
AND THE RAIN POURS DOWN LIKE TEARS
FROM THE COAL BLACK CLOUDS MY DEAR
ON TO THE DEVIL’S HOUSE
WELL YOU DO THINGS THAT YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND
YOUR FEEL CONFUSED BUT YOU WORK AND PLAN
THEN ALONG COMES A GIRL WITH A PRETTY SMILE
AND BEFORE YOU KNOW IT YOU’RE ALREADY MINE
COS I BEEN WATCHING YOU ALL THE DAYS OF YOUR LIFE
Then Claudia recorded the lovely version on the original Moon Over The Downs in 2003 with Fats Kaplin.
Here it is followed by the new version.
and today the great news…Claudia pictured below with the Spelleman award 🙂
My mother and father who both passed on from cancer would be proud they met over a turntable playing Bill Haley and Fats Domino:-)
As I have taken a break from ‘analysing’ myself in the modern educational manner I have turned to reading for some pleasure and first up this slight yet fairly amusing tome from a journo who hung around the sort of people I knew in London in early 2000s…
From living under Liam Watson (Toe-rag) to fetching up at Tapestry festival our lives almost intersect…I am almost sure I would have stood next to this geezer at a Come Down and Meet the Folks gig at some point. I remember Teddy Paige in Camden and Alan Tyler even wrote a song about him I think called ‘Ivanhoe’. I certainly saw him in jester costume but without sword as I recall.
As music editor and journo for various newspapers etc he had the C.V. that opened doors..even Davy Graham’s slightly bonkers one and this a fairly straightforward travelogue with added six-string footnotes. He tracks down some interesting teachers. It a shame he didn’t track down Jimmy Page himself but Jansch and Graham more esoteric and probably cheaper but not as cheap to interview as T. Model Ford which for me was high point of the tale.
Structurally the book well written, medical the facts correct ( in a wikipedia fashion at times) but for me the ending was a damp squib. If he really learnt guitar in six months and played such an effortlessly well received gig he either 1. Lying or 2. Deluded..or possibly both. It may be the truth but a disaster would have been far more in character with the shambles preceding and I did get the feeling that a very large lily was gilded several times over. Maybe an innate hankering after a real record deal ( he went on to launch a label) was actually to explain for the ‘happy’ ending.
Overall worth reading if have time and like I said amusing in parts.
We cannot start from what we do not know we can only start from what we know…
The leash to the greyhound tightened around her red raw hand. Across the river the lights of the car factory flickered and bounced in the water and she finally let go. The dog hesitated,then was gone, streaking off across the frosty ground toward the derelict bandstand that was disappearing in the dusk. She watched the dog circle the bandstand and head back across the icy grass. She suddenly thought of the family car her father drove when she was a child. The memory of warm leatherette seats and chrome trim around the dashboard vividly came to mind. Sometimes it smelt of his mistress. A sweet smell that was different to her mother. She wondered about the furtive kissing and hasty meetings that must have happened in that old car. She thought of his hand resting on the back seat on another cheap night out holding a cigarette. There was always a cigarette. Most times the car just smelt of the stubbed out butts in the ashtray. She remembered the ash swirling up and over her when the door opened once and her angry mother brushing it off her party dress.
The dog bounded away then returned. She always did. Her sides panting with the exertion of a few laps of the park. One time the dog had just kept going. She went home and had taken the back of Jimmy’s hand when she told him. He told her off for being ‘so fuckin stupid’. The two of them spent hours in another twilight looking for the pale grey dog. They were about to give up when she suddenly appeared from some bushes. Her right paw was dripping blood and leaving red paw marks on the tarmac path. It was probably caused by a broken bottle left in the undergrowth by the drunks that used the bandstand during the day or one of the teenagers who collected there of an evening. Jimmy said he’d never trust her with the dog again. A class dog in its day so he said,so he’d be walking her now. Just him. It didn’t last long. After a week he gave up walking her every night. He preferred the pub and his mates after a day as a plumber’s mate. So here they were again, her and that dog, circling the same dumb riverside park. The council estate behind them ricocheted to the sound of joy-riders cars and helicopters overhead as usual on a Sunday evening. She’d always liked the dog, more than Jimmy if she was honest. The dog was gentle and curled up at her feet when Jimmy shouted at her or showed her the back of his hand.
She bent forward and just managed to catch a hold of the collar. Felt the studs scratch the back of her hand as she struggled to attach the lead. Finally it was secure and she tugged the dog gently back towards captivity. They started the slow walk back down the side street that led home from the park. She watched the frost on the chain-link glisten. It was almost festive. The moon and stars above were fast being hidden by cloud as rain clouds came in. The quarter-moon above flashed and then disappeared like a coin in a drain. A woman in high heels and a tight dress careered into her, obviously in a hurry. The stupid woman almost fell over the dog’s lead. She shivered, just a little, then heard the first siren. Then another and blue lights flashing in the bay windows of the houses at the top of their street. Distant foreign and English voices merged as they echoed down the street toward her. She heard crying. Loud men’s voices shouting. Then she saw the van. Jimmy’s van. It was parked at a weird angle, half on, half off the pavement. She felt confused. It wasn’t time for him to be back from the pub yet. Every Sunday evening he’d leave her cooking mid-afternoon to watch the football and be back by seven. Always. It was half past six. Then she saw him sat on the pavement head in hands, not moving. Sat on the frosty pavement with a police-woman standing over him speaking into a radio. The police-woman’s hand on his shoulder half in sympathy, half restraining. As she got closer the voices became clearer but the foreign accents still confused her. The dog sensed Jimmy and started tugging hard on the leash. She wanted to go to him but held them both back.
Then she saw the bundle of rags under the front wheel. At least that what she thought it was until the shape of a small child’s shoe became clear. A paramedic was cutting the clothing from the child’s legs. The body was so still. She was now close enough to see a dark pool of what must be blood. Shone like a patch oil in the headlights. A woman in a long dress was being held back by a large bearded man. Other men were arriving or coming out of a local house. There was a lot of shouting in a language she did not understand. She had never talked to the people down the road. Jimmy said they were immigrants, or worse asylum seekers. Jimmy wasn’t the type to mix with anybody he didn’t know let alone their sort. He locked his tools away each night just in case after they had moved in. He’d heard stories down the pub. She stopped and could now see things clearly. Nobody seemed to see her or the dog. Jimmy’s van door was open. She could see the mess inside. Empty beer cans, empty sandwich wrappers. She stopped dead. Heart racing. The dog dragging at her outstretched hand which was now raw from holding on. Clouds still scudding across the quarter moon and the pavement glistening white under the streetlights. She could hear Jimmy sobbing now. Something was being said to him. A policeman got out of a second police car and pushed a breathalyzer at him. Head down at first Jimmy didn’t see it. The sobbing was making his body rock like the dog panting earlier. She’d never seen him cry. He was the tough guy. Always. The big man when out with his mates. He did things his way always. She just stayed out of the way. Most evenings she’d spend in that dimly lit front room with the telly on. Sometimes she’d light a cigarette from one of Jimmy’s smuggled packs even though she was trying to give up. Occasionally if lucky she’d treat herself to a single glass of cheap white wine from Tesco. She never got to join in the lad’s nights outs. ‘Girls was not allowed’, that was what Jimmy said. Most nights it was just her and the dog, watching Eastenders or some shit.
All of that had just changed. A third police car passed her and an ambulance pulled in behind. She couldn’t quite take it all in but like the clouds above her things were changing and moving on. The dog still tugged hard on the lead trying to join in the action. Suddenly there was a burst of activity and the child was lifted into the back of the ambulance at the same time as Jimmy was finally pulled to his feet and led to the second police car. There was a small bundle of rags left on the pavement soaked in blood. The second car disappeared with Jimmy. The ambulance left and there was just the first police woman inside her car now talking to her radio. She got out and started winding blue and white tape around Jimmy’s van and up on to the pavement.
She felt like she’d been watching T.V. Nothing seemed quite real. This was not the kind of thing that happened to her. Everything had a dull routine. Now this. She eased the tight lead on her fingers to try and get some circulation into her frozen fingers. The dog continued to pull at the leash. It was getting agitated and started to bark. She had to do something. Instead of walking past the police woman she turned and hauled the dog back towards the darkened path and the park where they’d come from. The dog sensed something had changed. She did too. She tried to take it all in. She wanted to be in their front room as if nothing had happened. Back in that dimly lit space with the dusty cheese-plant, the dodgy video player and the telly. She walked back around the park in the exact same pattern as before. She even pulled the lead off the dog but she just stared back at her and didn’t move. She shouted ‘go on…off you go’ but nothing. She gave up knelt down and held her tight and re-attached the collar. She could feel the dog’s heart pounding through its bony chest. She knew things like this happened to other people but she still couldn’t relate it to her and Jimmy. She remembered her mum used to say….’you don’t know what you don’t know’. It had never made any sense before. She started crying. She led the dog towards what used to be home.
She started to think about the child. Was it dead. Was Jimmy in really big trouble? What was happening? She was shivering from being out in the cold too long. Turning into their street again she saw the police woman driving toward them leaving the blue and white tape flapping around the van. She summoned up the courage to walk past on the other side of the road. The bundle of rags was still on the pavement glistening with frost under the street-light. She started to feel sick. She passed the house the people had come out of earlier. All the lights were on and she saw men talking in the front room. There were even more men than she remembered and more people arriving as she got to their front door. The key turned easily for the first time in months. She usually had to wrestle with it. The door swung open. The main light was on. Jimmy must have been back whilst they were at the park which was odd. Suddenly she could smell stale ash and the sweet smell of sex just like in her father’s car. Maybe she was imagining it. There were a couple of empty beer cans on the table. She didn’t remember them being there earlier.
She felt sick and let the dog go, still on its lead, then ran to the bathroom and vomited into the toilet bowl. She looked in the mirror. She wiped the blur of mascara from round her eyes and rinsed the taste of sick from her mouth. She stood there listening to the familiar sound of the dog lapping water from its bowl downstairs. She’d left the front door open and could hear foreign voices from down the road again. A siren could be heard but far away. Somebody else’s problem. Finally she went downstairs and closed the door. She sat for what seemed like ages looking at the cream plastic receiver on the wall. It never rang. Suddenly she went to the kitchen and fed the dog, grabbed some packets of crisps from the kitchen cupboard and went back upstairs to the bedroom. It took ten minutes to cram her few clothes into her old holiday suitcase. Grabbing her thickest coat she started explaining to the dog why they were leaving. She picked up the trailing leash and pulled the dog after her. They passed the blue and white tape, the frosted van, and the now stiff and frozen bundle of blood-stained rags and were gone.
Thanks Ray….and Tess.
Get in, Get Out: Writing the Short Story ‘The Leash’
These words are from Raymond Carver’s 1985 collection ‘Fires’ which was a starting point for my own engagement with the idea of writing short stories. Apart from a few false starts, which were closer to prose poetry than the traditional short story, ‘The Leash’ is my first attempt at the form. From the 1980s onwards I was drawn to the works of Thomas McGuane, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford, Bobbie Ann Mason and Jayne Anne Phillips. I became familiar with the concept of ‘dirty realism’ as defining American fiction from this period. The notion of ‘Sudden Fiction’ (the title of a 1986 anthology also known as ‘Flash Fiction’ or ‘Short Short Fiction’) appealed as it related to song-writing in its brevity. It was a style I felt familiar with both artistically and politically and it connected to the kind of music and lyric-writing I was engaged in. I wrote poetry but did not consider myself a prose writer. I have found the process of starting from zero in fiction very difficult. Far more difficult than I expected. Having lost the connection to writing poetry until recently and not reading fiction I found myself a complete beginner again. Apart from the Americans the most important writers to me historically were Chekhov (discovered through Carver) and Scottish and Irish writers. I did not and still do not consider myself as part of a particularly ‘English’ scene or style.
To ‘jump-start’ so to speak the learning process I read as many and various short stories as I could in the first term. The emphasis in class on constant reading producing writing made perfect sense to me and it was the reading that I lacked. I read as many short stories as I could including Rick Bass, Raymond Carver, Margaret Atwood, John Burnside, Matthew Licht, John McGahern, Arthur Machen, Mark Strand, Joy Williams, John Romano etc. I liked some, hated others but used each reading experience and published an online critique for each as ‘Daily Shorts’. This experience was really useful as it started me analysing exactly what I might want from the fiction I wrote. The writers I selected were sometimes deliberate e.g. poets who wrote fiction like Carver and Burnside and other writers which outside my comfort zone like Machen and Romano (a scriptwriter). I found the experience both pleasurable as I reacquainted myself with past heroes like McGahern and Carver and also troubling as I struggled with more contemporary short story writers like Gaffney and Licht. My age was a factor that also coloured my experience here and in class as the generational changes in writing fiction, the new ideas of what fiction was or could be and the emphasis on generic styles like fantasy and historical fiction helped to challenge my ‘older white male’ literary boundaries. I have now completed two 2000 word pieces of fiction. The first of these in hindsight was where I made most of my mistakes. Leaving aside the number of ‘as’ or the over long sentences I now feel that jumping in at the deep end with a pseudo-historical Zeppelin spy novel with embedded images in the manner of W.G. Sebald may have been a tad ambitious. However just the physical act of creating 2000 words was a major achievement for somebody who had not got past 1000 words of any fiction before. My bizarre version of ‘Riddle of The Sands’ set on the Norfolk coast received the feedback it deserved and although there were good ideas embedded in the piece it has gone into the bottom draw for now.
‘The Leash’ is my first short story. It is just under 2000 words and the statement at the beginning is a reminder to myself of what I trying to do which draws on both A.E.Coppard and Jonathan Taylor’s introductions concerning the ‘orality’ of specifically short fiction.
We cannot start from what we do not know we can only start from what we know…
It is simply a note to self….do not run, walk. Craft before imagination. Get in and get out. Write about what you know first. Written in one go no editing it relates to how I write poetry now. As a young man I constantly rewrote pieces to the point of destruction. I employed similar techniques in painting often losing work because of over working. Having hand-written it (important to me as this how I write best) I then re-edited a couple of times on the laptop. This feels right to me. I have read many descriptions of writing technique and this what suits me best others may have different approaches. I am happier with the story. It relates to a poem called ‘Greyhound in Frost’ written in 2002 but takes a completely different approach to the mid-1990s subject matter. It is my first attempt to write from a third person narrator point of view about a female character which means it not completely ‘authentic’ but I did my best. I still struggle with the idea of dialogue. It may form part of a sequence of short stories to be called ‘The Oxford Stories’. I think it is the first time I have found a ‘voice’ that like my poetry in fiction. Political, realist, working-class it is definitely not academic, historical nor particularly English in terms of influence. I have more in common with James Kelman than any Oxbridge writer…..hence the greyhound in the story is a tip of my hat to all of that.
 Raymond Carver, ‘On Writing’ in Fires (London: Collins Harvill, 1985) p.22.
 Robert Shapard and James Thomas, Sudden Fiction:American short short stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986)
I have waited 22 years to talk about this….there are many reasons for that.
I hope this page explains all of them and offends no-one but truth will always be stranger than fiction. I dedicate the page to Daisy and Ivo Belcher.
RIBA have finally put up the poem…so you can read it now I provided a ‘referenced’ version and a ‘clean’ none annotated version they went with referenced…strangely but there you go ‘Catching Light’….I have also provided a recording of myself reading (no footnotes;-) which will be uploaded later I presume.