Thursday, 15 January 2015

Notes from ukyachat - representations of witches in YA/other fiction, and CROW MOON cover reveal!

Lucy Powrie very kindly hosted me as a special guest this week on #ukyachat to talk about representations of witches in children's fiction as well as revealing the cover of CROW MOON, which was very exciting indeed. Here's the cover:

Pretty!!!! Thanks Quercus! And, should you want to preorder the book, you can do it here. It's out on 5th March.

Anyway, like a massive nerd I had already made some notes around Lucy's questions but with the rapid fire nature of something like #ukyachat - I mean, I REALLY don't know how Lucy does it, she's amazing - there was a lot I didn't say, so here's a bit more stuff around the topics. For what it's worth.

I'm going to do another blog post about my top witchy book recommendations and my favourite witches in fiction another time.

QUESTION ONE: What are your favourite books about witches? How have they challenged the typical witchy stereotype? 

Arha in book 2 of the Earthsea Quartet, the Tombs of Atuan. Technically she's a priestess of an old cult rather than a witch but the whole setup is ceremonial and devotional rather than potions and wands. 

There's a lovely picture book for young readers called The Everyday Witch which is where a little boy wonders if his mum is a witch riding a broomstick etc and when he asks she explains she is a witch, but in the sense that she uses family wisdom to heal, knows about herbs etc. 

The Witches of Eastwick, the book (though the film is great) the witches are normal women with more of a grasp of manipulating the natural world than supernatural beings. 

I liked Laura Powell's Burn Mark which was a YA title where the main witch character was very east end, working class, and the witches were kind of petty criminals. Her nan had taught her all she knew. It was nice to read a rather unglamorous  witch rather than the sirens one tends to get. There's a siren character in Crow Moon but lots of middle aged ladies and awkward kids too. 

Most witch fitch, though, (my term - I invented it - me) reflects the historical misconceptions of wise women, and the continuing lack of understanding about either Wicca being all spells and potions or ideas about white and black witches, evil, sexy sirens and toothless hags, and also the idea that witches are born with power and not made from hard work, dedication and practice! So somehow the witch stays as a paranormal concept out of reach of the normal person rather than a skill and faith anyone could develop, and empower themselves with.  People seems to be genuinely unaware that there is a huge pagan and modern witchcraft movement going on RIGHT NOW and that though those people might not be riding around on brooms, they are witches. People who in very real ways are working to positively influence their own lives and those of others.

On my most conspiracy theory days I would say that if popular culture tends to reflect the hegemony of the ruling elite, then it is in the interests of those that control us to maintain old superstitions and prejudices about concepts like the witch to discourage most people from pursuing enlightenment and gaining power for themselves. To keep imagining that magic isn't real. 

My favourite novel specifically about a witch, a powerful woman, is The Sea Priestess by Dion Fortune. If you are remotely into witchy things you should read it.

QUESTION TWO: What affect do you think mythology can have on the way a story is told? 

Stories that draw on mythology always appeal to me because of that depth of meaning they draw on, a resonance of cultural memory, symbolism, jungian collective imagery. Tolkien based LOTR on existing mythology which is partly why I think it has such a strong resonance with us still. Narnia too, which is deep in Christian mysticism. Mythology (in my view) enables us to connect to the spiritual journey of the soul, in allegory, in symbol, to give a story deeper understanding. I keep coming back to "resonance". 

Mythology comes up in so many children's and young adult stories too, because I think on one hand children are immersed in legend and fable via fairytale so it's all current for them anyway, and on the other, it's a way to impart deep meaning in an apparently simple way. And I think writers are generally fascinated with myth, and want to work with it, refashion it, share what they love. I loved Bone Jack by Sara Crowe, which is the chasing the stag myth, the old pagan idea about the stag as the symbol of masculine energy, the sun and the earth, being sacrificed for a good crop, for the good of the land. And she reflects in that about how the stag chase needs to happen even more so, that maybe today we need to honour the earth more than ever before because it's sick, it's suffering. We don't honour the natural cycles anymore, and if we did, you can say for damn sure that we wouldn't be messing up the environment. 

I'm really looking forward to Lu Herseys Deep Water, as that's a selkie myth. Margo Lanagan did one too - Sea Hearts. I also love anything with mermaids. I love the mermaid and siren myths. Basically I love all mythology. I would, I'm a pagan.

QUESTION THREE: Crow Moon focuses on pagan teenagers. How important do you think it is for religion to be represented in YA?

I think it is - lots of people live in religious cultures, families, in the UK, and just because many households are more secular, or atheist, that shouldn't be the accepted norm in books. Again it's a diversity issue. Wicca and paganism are very popular with teens, and there are lots of teen Muslims, teen Christians , teen Jews, teen Catholics etc etc. Religion and faith is a big part of life for lots of people and is under-represented in all fictional media. Again, specifically for pagans, it can be annoying when the only representations of your faith practice are only this completely fictionalised lightning-from-fingertip thing, or evil hags. I mean, I like a pointy black hat as much as the next person, but I think it reflects an unfortunate assumption certainly in the UK that anything spiritual is a bit silly, and if those people were being rational they'd be atheists. 

And now more than at any other time is the need for us to be talking about faith and representing it in a variety of ways, talking about the issues within it, the deep questions. I think it can be hard to work it seamlessly into fiction without sounding preachy or evangelical, or alternatively very negative. But actually one of the things YA does really well is consider the big issues - coming out, gender identity, race, bullying, growing up, friends, family. So I think it's a good place to see more representations of religion and faith.It doesn't have to be ABOUT religion. Faith can just be there in the background, sometimes.
QUESTION FOUR: Have you read any cli-fi? Do you think there will be a rise in them as their relevance increases? 

I think so. With clifi it's the same challenge about not making the prose clunky with all the science, but on the other hand, scifi has been managing that one way or the other for a long time - I mean, some scifi is definitely for the scientists out there, some is a bit more accessible. 

I thought Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver was very good, but even in that there were quite long passages about butterfly habits and classifications and stuff. I mean, I probably learnt a lot. Don't ask me about it now, mind. The MADDADDAM trilogy by Margaret Atwood is amazing, and it's chillingly relevant to where we are today in terms of genetic modification, food production, biochemical engineering, GM crops etc. Also, it's a cracking read. 

But I think our common concerns are always reflected in fiction, and we are now very concerned about the environment. Just like the big dystopia epics are reflecting a worry about the rise of totalitarianism and government control, the divisions between rich and poor, power and disempowerment, like in The Hunger Games, I think we'll see more and more fiction thinking about climate change and environmental issues over the next few years. The longer story arc of the CROW MOON trilogy engages more and more with the energy crisis and the inevitable results of capitalism.

As the film 2012 klaxoned at us in mile high letters - WE WERE WARNED. Right before it goes really weird at the end and loses all sense of geographical logic.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Books that influenced Crow Moon

It could be said that Crow Moon was influenced by every book I ever read. I know that there are books that I’ve read over and over again that have little or nothing to do with witches, or Cornwall, or any other thematic elements of the Greenworld trilogy – but they’ve probably had a huge impact on my prose writing style. Some novels I’ve reread so frequently that their rhythms, language use, even their style of punctuation have infiltrated my brain, like Dracula, Rebecca, Stephen Kings’s Firestarter and The Running Man, Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, Alias Grace, Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood, The World According to Garp, The Story of San Michele, 1984, Brave New World. As well, there’s a raft of poetry collections and short stories that I love – being a poet as well as a YA writer. Film and TV too – nothing was ever the same in my brain after The X Files, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Alien, Battlestar, Twin Peaks and Star Wars.
However, Crow Moon has some particular influences which I thought it might be fun to share with you here.

1. Woman on the Edge of Time – Marge Piercy

I first read this 1970s second wave feminist utopia/dystopia novel for my A Level extended essay in 1995 (God I’m so old) and reread it many times since; it is always thought-provoking. The story is of a woman undergoing psychiatric treatment in a hospital that starts to “visit” a strange utopian land. As the reader you are unsure whether it is real somehow or delusional. The utopia is a free and anti-capitalist community based on love and sharing. Romantic relationships are open, unheteronormative and for pleasure; parenting happens within the community rather than in the traditional family unit; the community are self sufficient and organic. By contrast, in the “real” world, the main character suffers within an entirely repressive and dystopian contemporary society which treats her unstated mental illness harshly; she is a poor woman of colour that is exploited by an all-too-familiar patriarchal, capitalist medical culture.

The utopia/dystopia juxtaposition and the feminist nature of the utopian land fed into the Greenworld and the Redworld. The Greenworld shares much of Piercy’s anti-capitalist, organic and environmental focus, as well as its community emphasis. However, as it is a “real” society and not (potentially) a fantasy or vision, it had to have downsides and people that lived within it that weren’t happy with things. Similarly, the Redworld has many bad elements – pollution, corruption etc, which is explored more in books 2 and 3, but it’s not all bad. It’s short sighted and unrealistic to paint one side all good and the other all bad – nothing is ever that way in life, after all. And as Arthur C Clarke said “Utopia was here at last: its novelty had not yet been assailed by the supreme enemy of all Utopias—boredom.” 

So I had to introduce this actually quite wonderful green feminist nature-loving, woman-centred utopia through the eyes of a disaffected teenage boy within it, partly because when you’re a teen, whatever your parents do, even if they’re rock musicians or Nobel Prizewinners or heart surgeons or astronauts, you think they’re totally boring and uncool. And partly so that Danny could show us the chinks in the armour of this apparently wonderful place – partly because nothing is perfect – the Greenworld witches are human, and therefore subject to human weaknesses – and partly so that conflict could occur. There would be no story if everything was perfect in the Greenworld. For me, the ultimate message about both cultures – the Green and the Red – are that they can learn from each other. There’s a fair amount of thought on my part in the books about the relationship between magic, spirituality and science and technology too, and how, in my view, the way forward is to learn from each other and not persist in this false idea that they are opposites.

2. The Sea Priestess – Dion Fortune

This book is a beautiful, readable fiction novel underpinned with a great deal of witchcraft practice, kind of in the same way that the Narnia books have Christian mysticism at their core. Dion Fortune was a great mystic and her work was one of the important precursors of the development of modern Wicca and paganism in the 1950s. In The Sea Priestess, a man suffering from severe asthma recuperates by the sea where he meets a mysterious woman that teaches him about connecting with the natural energies of the sea. It is a beautiful book, full of mystery, imagery and symbolism of the wild magic of water and of the strong connections of the Goddess principle to tides, water and the moon.

I deliberately set Crow Moon in Cornwall because of the intense magic in the landscape and the drama of the North Cornwall coast at Tintagel. I wanted to explore a sense of the natural power that comes from the waves crashing against rocks and sucking into the caves; I knew also that Tintagel and Boscastle, just next door, are traditionally very witchy places, not least because of the Witchcraft Museum and the King Arthur myth. Cornwall has a strong tradition of natural magic, wise women, herbalists and healers. It really was the case not that long ago that each village did have its own witch. So I started thinking – what would happen if each village had one again (some of them still do – there’s lots of traditional and modern witches in Cornwall and Devon still, and all over the UK) but they had the ultimate power, instead of being an outsider or whatever? And what if the culture was like 1970s feminism/goddess religion had won and taken over?

3. Oryx and Crake/The Year of the Flood – Margaret Atwood

Possibly one of my favourite fictional worlds ever, the Oryx and Crake series has been a strong influence on the Greenworld books. I mean, I’m a massive Atwood fan anyway. In this world, you have genetic engineering gone so astray that ultimately it wipes out the planet and a few survivors have to start again – and some of those survivors are Gods Gardeners, a kind of semi-pagan environmentalist group. I loved how the Gods Gardeners had made their own mythos, to some degree, about foreseeing a mass extinction event like the biblical Flood, and in its wake, canonising real people from the pre-Flood world as saints (my favourite is St Diane Fossey). Gods Gardeners also have the skills to survive the chemical-induced end of humanity  – permaculture, beekeeping, wilderness survival etc – and the foresight to hole up until the worst is over. In MADDADDAM, ultimately, it’s ecology, wilderness survival and a respect for the natural world that wins out over science (which brought the world as we know it to an end) and technology. I also liked Atwood’s pre-Flood polarised society, where the rich and priveliged live in gated communities and the poor live in the crime- and filth-ridden “pleeblands” – but that the rich and priveliged live under close watch by a ruthless government and military and the poor are, at least, freer in some ways.

4. 1984 – George Orwell

As for many people, 1984 is the classic fictional dystopia that provides a horrifying and dark inspiration – the effect of absolute power upon an initially utopian ideology. Sadly, in some ways and as I get older, it feels like 1984 is closer upon us than ever, with government surveillance increasing, the capitalist-driven media and growing gap between the super rich and the poor. The Redworld is not as deeply propagandist as 1984, but it is a dark world of suffering and corruption where only the super rich have access to an extremely limited supply of fuel and the “proles” are repressed by ever more violent means. However, the Greenworld too is increasingly in danger of moving away from its beautiful ideals and towards a less tolerant stance.

5. Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet – Joanne Proulx

I don’t hear as much as I’d like about this great Canadian YA title, but I read it around 2009 and the voice of the main boy teen character inspired Danny. Like a lot of YA it’s 1st person POV and I just loved Luke’s disengaged, apathetic approach. The book has a slightly paranormal theme, in that Luke appears to be able to predict people’s deaths, but it is absolutely not a classic paranormal story. The story is completely rooted in real life and the boring town Luke lives in; about being a teenage boy, having a crush on someone, hanging out with your friends, swearing, smoking and music.

6. How I Live Now – Meg Rosoff

HILN was probably the book that made me want to write for young people. I was (and still am) so impressed by its sparseness (Crow Moon is nowhere near as sparse) and emotional punch. Again, the “I” point of view works brilliantly; there’s a strong character voice and the coming-of-age and self realisation themes against a wider social conflict really stood out for me.

7. Glastonbury: Avalon of the Heart – Dion Fortune

I’m from the west country and it is a huge part of who I am. For me and many others, Glastonbury (the location of some of book 2) is the spiritual heart of this wonderful country we live in. The UK has a rich pagan history and our ancestors had a deep connection to the land, as is demonstrated by the many stone circles, burial mounds and sacred wells you can find in most regions. We are lucky to have these things. It makes me sad that more people don’t visit them more often and connect to the land we live in; take comfort from it, respect it and learn its history and the history of the people that once lived here.

This book looks at the spiritual history of Glastonbury and speculates what the Tor might once have been; it charts the development of the town into its current incarnation as a new age mecca and considers the King Arthur connection to Glastonbury as Avalon. For me, it’s a book that really exemplifies the importance of the sacred UK landscape, which is very important in Crow Moon. It’s important because it’s full of magic, but also because it is our natural environment that sustains us, and it’s being threatened by pollution, fracking and rampant, unchecked consumerism. Which needs to stop.

8. A Witch Alone - Marian Green

When I was thinking about the magic and the style of witchcraft the Greenworld would use, I knew it had to be particularly the nature-based part of Wicca and the general environment-loving element of paganism. I think most people think instantly of spells and potions when they think about witches, real or caricature, but the thing that is key about real witchcraft is that it’s a nature religion. One observes and appreciates the elements, and the Earth as a living source of wonder. All pagans and witches, then, are basically environmentalists. If Nature is your God, you want to look after it.

Marian Green is the poster-woman-witch for the Greenworld, in that case. Her books (nonfiction) are all about how to become in tune with the natural world around you and work with it to effect change in your own life and generally make the world awesome around you. In the Greenworld, everyone is deeply in tune with the rhythms of the earth. They notice the phases of the moon, the calls of the birds; they know the energies of plants; they mark each passing season with the old, traditional festivals.

9. Celtic Lore & Spellcraft of the Dark Goddess: Invoking the Morrigan - Stephanie Woodfield

The central belief system in the Greenworld is a Celtic pagan one, drawing on the ancient myths and legends of Ireland which is just as present in Cornwall as a Celtic region. There are a lot of Irish, Welsh and Scottish gods and goddesses, so for Crow Moon I had to simplify and focus on a trinity of Brighid, Morrigan and Lugh as three deities from the Celtic belief system. I knew of Brighid and Lugh already – Brighid, the Irish goddess of heavenly cleansing fire and inspiration, poetry, farming (she is represented by a cow – cows were important then. Still are) and Lugh, a sun god and warrior. I was not so knowledgeable about The Morrigan, though. 

I learned, though, that the Morrigan is the Irish goddess of battle, death and rebirth, sex (wooh!) and is a protectress of the land, and it was that element of her in particular that made her appropriate for Crow Moon. Crows, ravens, horses, cows and eels are her animals. Brighid, the lovely light goddess of agriculture, poetry and fire, sea and earth made a good general Goddess for Greenworlders to worship, but the Morrigan’s feistier environmental warrior aspect that really came to power the book along, and into book 2. She also fit well with the feisty Melz character, as Brighid fit with her more pleasing sister Saba.

10. The Vanishing Face of Gaia – James Lovelock

Kind of massive downer, this book, but it needs to be heeded: the message is that we can expect huge environmental collapse quite soon. Lovelock reckons that we currently have about 20 years to enjoy ourselves before an energy crisis/global warming turns all the lights out and vast areas of land are flooded, leaving our poor largely-capitalist butts in the midst of basic survival without power, thousands/millions displaced, resources stretched and basically if you do still have your house to live in, be prepared to protect it from looters or worse. 

We are as a society so poorly prepared for the reasonably likely consequences of global warming, even just as one part of a huge brewing cocktail of chaos that Gaia (the living, breathing world) is about to unleash on us, the irritating fleas on her back which have got out of control, that the future really is likely to turn into a dystopian epic unless something really quite major happens now. According to Lovelock, even if we did stop doing all the bad stuff right now it would still happen anyway. I mean, think about it. Look what happens if we have a heavy snow. What would happen if East Anglia and Cornwall flooded? Permanently? We’re not prepared.

In the Redworld there’s an energy crisis and a pointless war to try and get whatever tiny bit of fuel there is left. Rather than prepare for an existence with less or no power and empower its citizens with Greenworld agricultural and survival skills, The Redworld chooses to use its remaining resources to fight each other. Hmmmm.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Writing tips 2: Keeping a writing journal

One of the best and most effective things I’ve ever done as a writer is keep a writing journal, and I recommend you start one immediately. Go and get one. This is your task. Find a book you enjoy looking at and writing in. Make keeping a writing journal your new year resolution.

In the past I’ve used Moleskine notebooks and now I use these amazing, hardcover, big journals from
Peter Pauper Press. You can order them online (in the UK – from Amazon. SORRY) and they always have beautiful designs. At the moment I have one of their antique bookbinding designs, The Cosmology Journal, and let me tell you it’s possibly the most beautiful notebook I’ve ever owned. Apparently it is “adapted from the celebrated Catalan Atlas (1375), attributed to master map-maker Abraham Cresques of Majorca, Spain. This cosmological diagram places earth in the center, personified by an astronomer holding an astrolabe. Around the earth, the elements, planets, signs of the zodiac, and moon phases are displayed within concentric circles, and the four seasons are portrayed in the corners.” Woah. Irritatingly, I can't upload pics here for the moment for some reason, but look at the link.

See, the thing is, in my opinion, your journal/notebook needs to feel special. You need to love it and feel excited about writing in it. So, find something cool.

I do really, heartily recommend that this is an actual book with paper pages in it. I also recommend that you get a decent sized book. No piddly 1980s phone book sizes. You need to be able to scrawl. You need space. As an acting teacher I knew once said when complaining about having a small rehearsal room – I’ve got a class of lions and they need to prowl.

Your journal will be the place that you prowl, writing-wise. Where you write all of your plans for stories, scribbled two-line rhymes, reworkings, thoughts, cut out pictures from magazines, quotes copied from books, odd diary entries, observations and descriptions of funny people you met on the train. No-one will read it apart from you: it’s your messy creative space. Messy space needs… space.

However, that said, I’ve had students in the past that preferred to keep all their writing online – mostly because they found using a pen and paper difficult for one reason and another – in which case, apart from keeping a big word doc in a special private folder for these journal-ish thoughts, it’s good to look at something like
Pinterest. Pinterest is an online scrapbook, a pinboard, where you can collect images that inspire you and organise them under different subjects. You can then follow other users who are pinning stuff you like, like their pins etc. I have a few boards – mostly not writing oriented, more “expensive dresses I like” for fun, but I also have pinboards of atmospheric pics that are mood boards for all my writing projects. You can check out my Pinterest board for CROW MOON here. Incidentally, this is something that publishers seem to love, as it helps them envisage your story world, especially when it comes time for cover design.

But anyway, using either a notebook or Pinterest (or both) will provide you with a place to draw together inspiring pictures, quotes, text, photos, art, newspaper stories – anything that interests you and makes you think hmmm, I’d like to do something with that at some point. That’s the point, right?

The other thing I love about keeping a writing journal is it makes me feel like a writer (self image is all; if you don’t believe you can do it, you can’t and won’t do it), and it also makes me feel productive. Even if all I’ve done writing-wise all week is to note down a few plot ideas for my current project, I feel like I’ve done something. It’s hassle free, I don’t have to be neat or produce something with an arc. Damn arcs.

It keeps me current, it keeps me in the flow of writing. You might not have danced the tango that week but you did your stretches.

One of my favourite poets, Bernadette Mayer, has a famous set of journal ideas as part of her
Writing Experiments – a huge list of quirky ideas for writing projects. If you’re having trouble thinking about what to do in your journal, do some of these:
Write entries in your journal about:
* Dreams
* Food
* Finances
* Love
* Beautiful and/or ugly sights
* Reading/music/art, etc. encountered each day
* Rooms
* Weather
* People one sees-description
* Subway, bus, car or other trips (e.g., the same bus trip written about every day)
* Pleasures and/or pain
* Answering machine messages/telephone calls
* Colour
* Light
* The body and its parts
* Clocks/time-keeping
* Tenant-landlord situations
* Skies
* Dangers
* Sounds
* Coincidences and connections
* Times of solitude
Other ideas:
* Write once a day in minute detail about one thing
* Write every day at the same time, e.g. lunch poems, waking ideas, etc.
* Write minimally: one line or sentence per day
If it helps, write the above list as a reminder of topics in your journal to refer to. Don’t impose limitations on how much or little you write in one go (unless you are doing the “one sentence per day” rule), and most of all, don’t limit your imagination.
So, to review: as well as being a messy creative space, keeping a writing journal will:
  • Become a rich store of ideas you can rework, steal and come back to later
  • Make you feel like a writer
  • Give you a place to write without feeling like you have to finish anything or create a whole piece
  • Keep the momentum of your writing going – in a week, if you haven’t written anything else but done some stuff in your journal, you’ll still feel productive
Go and journal, my friends, and be free.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Writing tips. Number One: Start writing.

You’re starting to write. You want to write. You want to be a writer. But you don’t know where to start. That’s okay. We've all been there.

Today you will learn the secret of being a writer.
Are you ready?
Here it is.
Actually writing.
That’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? You may think, and you’d be right. However, job one of writing “creatively” is to actually write. Often. Get your words on the paper or on the screen. Because until you do, it’s all just something you mean to do and don’t.
I play the bass – badly. I often think I’d like to form a band. An all-girl punk band like The Runaways/Hole called something edgy and cool like The Razorettes or She Gives a Blank Stare, but I haven’t done it yet. Why? I like the idea but I basically can’t be bothered to find other band members and get a set together – or learn any hard songs - (all key parts of forming a band, really) – but really, it boils down to one thing: I don’t want it enough.
Writing is the same. You have to want to actually do it. And then do it regularly. You have to put the hours in. You wouldn’t expect to learn the cello without practising, so apply that logic to writing. No writer in the world just sits down one day and pens their masterpiece without hours and hours and years of practice beforehand.
That’s a sobering thought, isn’t it? But the nice thing about writing is that it shouldn’t be a chore – you enjoy writing, probably, that’s why you’re reading this. So doing it a lot will be fun.
But how do I start?
Here’s what you do:
Find a half-sentence or phrase (open the newspaper or a book to a random page and use that), and write continuously without stopping to a deadline – five or ten minutes to start, and then once you get used to it you can go for longer.
It doesn’t matter what you write – total nonsense is good. You just have to keep writing, plunging onwards onto the blank paper, and ABSOLUTELY NOT READING BACK WHAT YOU’VE WRITTEN, STOPPING AND THINKING, CROSSING THINGS OUT OR TRYING TO THINK OF BETTER WORDS. It’s about creating a flow of writing from your unconscious and not judging what comes out.
Phrases to start you off:
I feel…
He is…
She was…
We are not…
Or you might like something more prescriptive, like:
It was a crisp winter morning when…
She walked into the kitchen and…
I am furious about…
You never know when…
I tell students that if they get stuck whilst writing they can repeat the opening words I’ve given them and start off on another tangent, or if that doesn’t work, they can write down all the items in their weekly shop, the colours of the rainbow, describe their cat – whatever they want. They just have to keep writing, and even those boring lists or whatever may lead to an interesting avenue. Honestly.
Do this every day for the next two weeks. The aim at this stage is to write little and often rather than larger occasional splurges: that way, you’ll get used to freeing up your mind and your writing hand.
This exercise will:
  • Reveal some very interesting ideas from your unconscious
  • Demonstrate the importance of not self-editing in the early stages of writing
  • Get words on paper
  • Start to build up a nice little collection of free writing you can perhaps draw on for ideas in the future
  • Build your confidence
Off you go! Write, don’t be afraid of writing rubbish, and write regularly.

Once you've done it for two weeks, do it for another two weeks.

Then another two.

You see where I'm going here.

After a while, you might think of something else you want to write. Maybe inspired by a book you really love.

Write that.

If I applied this kind of work ethic to bass playing, I'd be Flea by now.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

What is Regressive Poetics about?

You enjoyed my radio show last night, talking about Regressive Poetics with the smooth-voiced Ryan Ormonde, right? You weren't watching Germany decimate Brazil 7-1, right? No! Of course not. Here are my notes that accompany the programme which aired last night on 104.4FM, Resonance Radio. You can listen again on Saturday night at 7pm which is probably when the bloody World Cup final is on. I was born on Cup Final Day, you know. It haunts me.

The next episode, next Tuesday at 9pm, features the Manchester-based poet Richard Barrett talking about, among other things, his books A Big Apple and Hugz, and Peter Barlow's cigarette smoking technique.

What is Regressive Poetics about?

Past life accounts translated via a digital medium. I liked the idea of an account of something being relayed from another time, and to be able to explore the notion of information being conveyed from “the other side”, ie past lives, or from people that are dead via mediumship. Mediumship always has this kind of inaccuracy about it. You see psychic mediums frowning and straining to get the right message through, and they can describe it as if they are trying to hear something very faint, or garbled. I think people remembering or re-experiencing their past lives is somewhat similar, certainly dreamlike, where things assume a symbolic importance rather than a literal one, or where things are alluded to, or where language is odd or nonsensical, but it has an internal logic within-the-dream. I was reading a book called Swan on a Black Sea which is an account of a series of mediumistic communications from the early 20th century where the medium describes the experience of conveying information as somewhat of a mixed grill – meaning that information, or meaning, is transmitted inefficiently from the spirit world to this one, and as well as that, the information comes through the veil of the medium’s own biases, her take on it. So what emerges is very often a mix of the original message, the distortion and the intermediary’s own effect on the language or the message. Her kind of hegemonic bias.

How does this book relate to your other poetry?

I am, overall, most interested in the relationships between spiritual practices and poetics. In 2010 I published another processual book called Taropoetics, which was also a durational work. I had dealt myself a spread of five tarot cards every week and free-written, as much in a trance as possible, inspired by them – their images, their associations, their juxtapositions. Like Italo Calvino in The Castle of Crossed Destinies I thought the tarot was a good tool to investigate chance procedures. After I had a year’s worth of writing I revisited the text and shaped it into 52 individual poetic pieces.

So Regressive Poetics takes a different type of spiritual experience – past life memory instead of fortune telling, or spiritual introspection, and works with that narrative. Both are ways to investigate the personal and both have their own kind of rules.

In terms of presentation, I also used the forward slash that I had used as the only punctuation in Taropoetics in RP, although the text is ordered differently and not as uniformly as in TP. I like the forward slash as it has that sense of onward motion, of distinction and cutting but also running together. So it works really well for language where there are quite opposing statements or thoughts, but they are joined together in one stream of consciousness kind of effect. Both RP and TP have that characteristic.

What works inspired you to create this?

Both works draw on Hannah Weiner’s Clairvoyant Journal and Susan Hiller’s Belshazzar’s Feast, among other things. Both of those have a thematic similarity – trance and clairvoyance – and I love Hannah Weiner’s jumbled, stream of consciousness text. Like taking free writing to its furthest conclusion. Belshazzar’s Feast is a film that aims to induce a sense of trance in the watcher and was transmitted on normal TV – so different in not being text based, but interesting because it’s aiming to provide a personal experience for the watcher, that may be illuminative and unconscious and different for everyone.

In terms of durational and process-based work I really also like Kenneth Goldsmith, I like that he has that totality of approach and can work over long periods of time. If RP was properly Goldsmith, though, it would be far more encyclopedic, like it would be a definitive voyage into all of my past lives and the past lives of everyone I knew, and he wouldn’t edit, he would just collate all the data, the language-data, into one big book or website or something. Then he’d probably do something clever with it like some performance art. Use it as an score for a happening or something. Maybe I should do that.

How did you construct the poems?

I found a variety of past life accounts, either published books or online, as well as online films of people talking about their past lives. The printed accounts I read into a digital dictation app that produces text, and the films I played directly into the app. So for the films there was one less layer of interpretation, as machine was talking to machine at that point.

I like to think of the stages of the work as meat, spirit and digital. So for the accounts that were read from books, you could look at it like:

Spirit (past life memory) Meat (recount into book) Meat (read into app) Digital (app translates and produces text) Meat (writer edits, adjusts, biased) Meat (printed in book) Spirit (poem exists as new entity, in creative ether)

Whereas with the film version, it’s Spirit-Digital-Meat-Meat-Spirit. It would be interesting to think about how you could eradicate the meat element altogether, although I don’t think you could. That’s the idea in Neuromancer, but as Stelarc points out, you need embodiment to enable digital. At least at the moment.

What questions did you ask of the work? Did anything surprise you?

I wanted to know how much derangement I’d get using this method, whether it was a good way to do it, or whether a manual cutup was better. And I wanted to know how something like a digital dictation app would differ from pure cutup. And I also wanted to see if anything truly enlightening or beautiful came out. Something that really reflected the otherworldliness of a past life experience, that kind of symbolism of the human experience, our spiritual destiny.

The app is quite different to a pure cutup, actually cutting up every single word, mixing them up in a bag and restringing it. Apart from the time restrictions for that method (reading into an app is much quicker), the app adds something to the source text. It changes it at source. A paper cutup can’t change the component words or rewrite your sentences – it can’t mishear and creatively recreate a sentence, changing perceived meaning and inference, which the dictation app does. It produces sentences that make sense, even if as a whole document the text doesn’t have a strong coherence. So that’s really interesting and different.

In terms of surprise, I didn’t know until I had read a few sections into the app how accurate it was going to be. There’s a certain amount of derangement that I needed for this to work, and it surprised me how inaccurate the dictation app was – which was a good thing. Additionally, it has a strong emphasis on digital language in its translation – so it often misheard words as web-language, so there are quite a lot of sentences about websites and internets and such, which is really interesting and presumably reflects a bias on the part of the app itself – a kind of programming bias towards digi-speak. I really like that. I like that there are lines like:

I feel strange, like I’m not acknowledged in internet intranets

like with a nice Ethernet-like portrait reading

without upsetting the 1950s into cookies.

He leads to me as inbox

The protected server is group of action.

and deterrent is dead/inside this ritual/burning in a past life online

The very first lines of text are a kind of meditation on the body and digital – meat and digital.

click here to request the inter body/performance is when the secret details are only
electric/not limited to stain the body/intended from the body/follow those ranges
across distance –

and there’s this section in The Protected Server is a Group of Action

The canine women in prison make your body. These people appear to have all your connections and have blood connections and laptops of things.

and in Omm Sety there is this great section where the online is conflated with the spiritual space, and I think that’s a really interesting comparison.

She inserted the first meeting regularly, so totally astral plane, and occasionally
Henry materialised my website on the bed, and then she was transferred.

I think there are also passages that have a surprising lyricism to them:

question/I found it very distasteful to think I could have one tiny
penis/she was so decided to forget about her and focus on my music limitation
hygienist/wicked dreams of myself stuck in watching women being beheaded in
front of me/until the dreams began picking the recurrence of the streams –

I also like that there are several references to the nature of language itself:

evenings are spent in feasting a music-making free Celtic language of symbols

She wrote her father excitedly, declaring this is my hand this is where I'm still here
otherwise all broken.

What will you do next?

I am working on another durational project which is another year’s raw text generation, but I don’t know what I’ll do with it yet. 

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Experimental Poetics on Resonance FM

Details of the show I've been working on for Resonance FM on Experimental Poetics, starting next week. To tune in, listen online or visit 104.4FM.

This series, featuring four experimental poets from the UK, explores a rich variety of work that aims to foreground the materiality of language and promote process-led writing approaches. Poet and writer Anna McKerrow talks to her contemporaries about issues of the personal, or apparently personal, in experimental poetry;  the presence and use of digital media in poetics; the distinctions between "experimental" and more mainstream work; the book as text object and the relationships between versions of things - books and films.
The series also considers the current experimental poetry "scene" and poetry's relationship to punk, butchers, meat, rage and subversion.
In particular, the series will profile four recent collections of poetry from the innovative poetry press The Knives, Forks and Spoons Press.
Episode I - Tuesday 1st July, 9pm-9.30pm
Poet and performer Ryan Ormonde of the PressFreePress collective talks to Anna McKerrow about his book, "The of of The film of The book and The of of The book of The film" (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press) creating a book as text object, and
film and writing, archiving and putting into words. Find out more about Ryan's work on his blog: [Repeated Saturday 7pm.]
Episode 2 - Tuesday 8th July, 9pm-9.30pm
To coincide with the publication of her experimental poetry collection "Regressive Poetics" (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press), Anna McKerrow talks to poet Ryan Ormonde about issues of memory, language and digital translation in the recording of past life stories. Anna's blog [Repeated Saturday 7pm.]
Episode 3 - Tuesday 15th July, 9pm-9.30pm
Poet and publisher Richard Barrett discusses his book "A Big Apple" (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press) with Anna McKerrow, considering issues of the personal and confessional in experimental poetry, and anger as an oppositional poetics. Find out more about his poetry imprint DEPTPRESS here:  [Repeated Saturday 7pm.]
Episode 4 - Tuesday 22nd July, 9pm-9.30pm
Poet, short story writer and poetry editor at V Press Sarah James talks to Anna McKerrow about her second poetry collection,   "Be(yond)" (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press), a book in three sections which treads the boundaries between "experimental" and "contemporary" poetry. Find out more about Sarah's work here:  [Repeated Saturday 7pm.]