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: http://poeticpracticejournal.blogspot.co.uk/p/about.html [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 isannamckerrow.blogspot.com [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: http://department3.tumblr.com/  [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: http://sarah-james.co.uk  [Repeated Saturday 7pm.]

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Regressive Poetics is finally OUT!!

A work that is complete in its enveloping of the infinite intelligence of the incomplete refracted through the mind of one powerfully alone in her own engagements, Mckerrrow's divination is exploration of the explanation of divination written through the digital seascape of the beautiful language warp. She is a longing voice echoing through walls, a collected driven, a concerned concentration of poetry upon spiritualisms. It is a unique and beautiful document you hold in your hands, a report from an other side.

 – S.J. Fowler

'Why are you 51447435432 120142343?' ask the spirits via McKerrow via her digital dictation app. Think you can answer that? There are less straightforward questions hiding in the interference on the line - or is it interference? Who is speaking? Which are the discrepancies and where is the message? Was that funny ha-ha or deadly funny? Do not dismiss or pass over. Listen.

– Ryan Ormonde

Regressive Poetics, my fourth book of poetry, is now available. The above review/blurbs were kindly provided by two of the poets I am coincidentally (!) interviewing for my upcoming series on Experimental Poetics for Resonance FM, beginning Monday 1st July at 9pm with the fabulous, was-almost-the-next-Orlando Bloom Ryan Ormonde and continuing with me, Sarah James, Richard Barrett, S J Fowler and David Berridge. A full schedule will follow shortly. The show will focus on recent work by all of us for the awesome Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, which is the most prolific experimental press in the UK.

If you're curious to know what a process-based experiment in linguistics/poetics, using past life memory as a concept and digital dictation as a functional metaphor looks like, look no further! Here's the explanatory blurb at the beginning of the book. I like to provide explanatory context for the more avant-garde work because, lets face it, who would understand it otherwise?

Regressive Poetics

I became aware of the concept of reincarnation at a young age, being presented with the idea that our souls use the earth as a vast schoolroom, returning to it to learn new lessons over many lives, as a completely logical concept by my mother. I continue to view it as entirely likely.
When I was older I discovered that my grandmother had for many years been secretary and editor to A J Stewart, author of Falcon: The Autobiography of His Grace James IV, King of Scots. Ms Stewart’s fascinating book was the account of her past life as James IV, and she was completely convinced of the veracity of her story.

The guiding ethos of this work is my interest in the correlations between artistic and
spiritual practices, and the strong place of language within practices such as meditation, magic, divination etc. After producing a process-based poetic work on the tarot I wondered whether past life recall stories would be an interesting medium for a similar processual approach.

I am interested in the way that a past life “memory”, or story, is accessed via a hypnotic state, and relayed to the hypnotist or therapist in a state very much like a waking dream. We have all had the experience of language in dreams, where the words that seem so profound in the dream are nonsense when awake.

There is also an element of translation or decryption present in past life tales, in the sense that they are usually relayed back in a somewhat fragmentary way from the border of the unconscious. In mediumship this is a common problem, because communicating with the spirit world is described as talking with someone very far away, or operating on a very different frequency of sound. Discrepancies occur.

I see now how we can wander and get lost in the memories of the automatist when we so-called dead try to communicate. This kind of mutual selection is bound to be what my friend Gerald calls a “mixed grill”

– Received from Winifred Coombe Tennant by Geraldine Cummins in Swan on a Black Sea: A Study in Automatic Writing eds Signe Toksvig, 1971.

I wanted to push this derangement of language another step further, this “mixed grill” of language from one side, death, being translated through to the other side, life.

I worked with a digital dictation app into which I read published accounts of past lives from a variety of sources. This produced its own version of the text, complete with interesting inaccuracies and juxtapositions and a surprising amount of digital and online-speak, which can only reflect the programming of the app to be sensitive to current technological jargon. In the way that the app “made sense” of what I gave it, we too tend to interpret accounts such as past life “memories” through the veils of historical fact, bias, scientific rationale, physics theory or personal prejudice.

With past life regression hypnotic work there is also the possible issue of suggestion on the part of the hypnotist/therapist, again echoing the possible adjustment of the text. This mediation is also common in mediumship, as mentioned above. In Swan on a Black Sea, the spirit of the very politically liberal Mrs Coombe-Tennant sometimes transmitted” far more conservative political opinions, which was deemed to be the bias of the medium Miss Cummins’ own beliefs on the original message.

Each poem in this collection is based on one particular past life story and is the result
of translation and rewriting from the original text (the original experience) to a doubly mediated text – a version of the original mediated first by technology and second by the writer (me). Some pieces were recorded by the app direct from online videos rather than being read aloud by me. The poems are therefore subject to technological, programmed language bias and personal bias/artistic style on my part.

This is an integral part of their being.

I found that this method gave me some linguistically interesting pieces which still managed to keep a sense of dreamlike mystery as well as highlighting the strange hyperreality of “remembering” a past life in such apparent detail. In these poems, the stories are trying to “get through”, but there is an imperfect medium (me) using a flawed machinery.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Where I ruminate on my favourite short story collections

I was looking at the bookshelf in the utility room today  – because books are everywhere in this house – and I started thinking about all the great short story collections I’ve enjoyed over the years. A few caught my eye: creased spines from spending a week splayed on armrests; creased covers from being lost in dusty handbags; folded down pages. I trash my books. With love. I like the things I love to have that lived-in look. That’s a backward compliment to all the men I’ve ever found attractive.

Anyway, I made a quick top ten – as I am wont to do. I like a good top ten. And then I thought I’d write down the top ten. On the back of an envelope, as it was handy, and I had a spare minute because I’d gone to the loo and the window of leaving mummy alone because she’s in the bathroom was still open.

Then, I remembered I had an underused blog, and I really should be using it more. So here’s my top ten (in no particular order: I like lists but rankings are beyond me) of great short story collections that may or may not have influenced my writing over the years. N.B – I mean in style. I have only ever written one short story, as a favour to a friend. Kind of a strange favour without context. And then I wrote this out, and I lost the will to live at eight. But eight is a lucky number for me, so I’ll leave it there.

Corpus – Susan Irvine
My fellow Quercus author (yeah, got a mention of my book deal in!!! whoop whoop) Susan Irvine is, in my opinion, one of our greatest living British authors. I have this collection and her novel Muse, which is also excellent, but it’s the short stories in this book that really stand out as something beyond the norm to me. Corpus is a series of stories that all meditate in some way on the nature of the making of art and the visual art world, whether it’s about a writer toiling away at her novel about perfumes or an artist raising a nongendered child as a contemporary art experiment. In “Chaplet of the Infernal Gods”, a story about a writer becoming a writer via Julia Cameron’s seminal art-practice-as-spiritual-work The Artist’s Way, there is possibly the dirtiest line I have ever read in a work of LITERATURE – about Napoleon writing home to Josephine, telling her not to wash until he came home. He was, apparently, a fan of the natural smell of the human (female) body. Irvine’s writer-narrator says

“he wanted Josephine ripe and runny as an old Camembert (…) you get a highly-sexed, olfactively-arousable skanky Napoleon who wants to dash home at the head of his victorious army and find Josephine emitting waves of vaginal effluvia from under her muslin court dress.”

And this letter to Josephine – “Home in three days. Don’t wash,” was the inspiration for the perfume Je Reviens. I return. Food for thought.

I like to give this story to creative writing students to read and discuss – on one hand because it is about the process of writing, of beginning to write – but also because of the vaginal effluvia. Separates the group somewhat. Amuses me.

A Good Man is Hard to Find – Flannery O’Connor
One of the masters of the short story form, Flannery O’Connor was one of the many great American writers that attended the Iowa Writers Workshop in the 1940s. She remains one of the best American short story writers, and my favourite story in this collection is “A Stroke of Good Fortune” mostly because the events typify what a short story is supposed to do. It covers a small space of time – the time it takes for a woman to climb a few flights of stairs. At the top of the stairs (the top of the story; the climax/realisation/epiphany) she realises she is pregnant. She comes back down the stairs and the tone changes a little from a sense of doomed expectation to a more ambiguous possibility that there may have been some good fortune. But only that there may. The writing is sparse but full of feeling; the imagery is physical and the stories – all of them in the book – have a kind of violent realisation in each one. O’Connor said that she was sick of people reviewing the book and talking about the horrors that lie within it, because in her mind they were everyday horrors. The everyday difficulties and spectres in most people’s lives.

First Love, Last Rites – Ian McEwan
I am not a huge McEwan fan, but this first publication is raw and beautiful and horrifying. Menace and threat permeate the pages in the inbetween places of the English landscape – canals, underpasses, rivers. I get disquieted every time I read it, but that just means it’s doing its job. If a book continually puts you on edge despite you knowing what’s going to happen, that’s something special. The stories are incredibly dense and full of sadness and weight at the same time, and all of the horror is horrifying and sad because it happens every day to ordinary people in exactly the kind of accidental and casual, unreported and unregulated way that McEwan depicts. Depressing. But that has never been a reason I put a book down. Depressing is at least honest and real. I tire easily of relentless optimism.

Pretty Monsters – Kelly Link
Canongate published this volume of the American writer’s ghoulish teen-esque/crossover short stories a few years ago with a cool cover (Shaun Tan illustrated) and I wanted it on sight. Imagine my joy when I discovered inside a writer that Neil Gaiman describes as a national treasure and Audrey Niffenegger lauds as “the literary descendant of Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka”. I’m not too sure about that, as these are, after all, tales about monsters eating people at a campout in a kind of self-conscious humourous postmodern bloodlust and dead ex-girlfriends that you buried with your bad love poetry, and then dig up because you want the poetry back – only to find that the girlfriend is walking around with unmanageable hair, making derisory remarks about your literary skills.
But I can see where Audrey’s coming from, if she is a little grandiose – Kelly Link isn’t of the avant-garde. Neither has she created a whole new genre of fiction or written something so densely philosophical that it turns the whole notion of what reading is, what reality and knowledge is, on its head. But she does write about monsters and transformation, and she convenes a gothic horror sensibility with a post-something sense of humour and a quirkiness in a minimalistic, IKEA showroom, and dazzles you with a balance between literariness and the fantastical which is really, really, really good. Love Kelly. Because fantasy and gothic horror and genuinely good writing are NOT necessarily separate.

Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful – Deborah Kay Davies
This is the kind of conceptual short story collection I love – where each story is its own microcosm, but they all contribute to an overall macrocosm of story. All of the stories in this book depict different moments in the lives of Grace and Tamar in the title. And what I really love about it, again, I guess, is the extreme physicality of the writing. Like, the way that Davies emphasises the reality of life – the body. Blood. Milk leaking from breasts. Lust. Snotty noses. That life is messy and people are primal, obeying their primal urges, and life is full of edges and sharpness. Tamar, in particular, is quite horrible in some of the stories. One of those heavy, aggressive kids, sticky, thrusting, selfish. And there’s a terrific reality to her and all the characters. The study of the (one presumes) badly post-partum depressed mother whose best dress hardly buttons over her somehow obscenely enlarged breasts, and who is convinced that the people are coming through the radio to get the baby. And as ever with a child narrator, the eyes don’t judge – we do. Really loved this book.

The Secrets of Dr Taverner – Dion Fortune
Dion Fortune, the pen name of Violet Firth, a Christian occultist and spiritual pioneer, was an author of many books of mystical fiction as well as nonfiction volumes about the Qabalah and working within the hermetic tradition. The first of these I read, in my teens, The Sea Priestess, made a huge impact on me and was one of the key texts that developed my interest in paganism. However, The Secrets of Dr Taverner is a collection of short stories I read much later on. The stories are a kind of “casebook” of a fictional modern (read 1940s/1950s) magician/occultist and his assistant, solving paranormal issues in people’s lives with magic. Kind of like Medium/Charmed meets Sherlock Holmes, and just as British as Conan Doyle, with the added bonus that all the stories were based on Fortune’s real life experiences. These things really happened.

And that, in many ways, influenced my own writing. All of Fortune’s fictional works are cracking good reads in the style of Ian Fleming meets Somerset Maugham; clipped and British and decidedly upper class, but with sensational content. I wanted to write something similar – that had a base in the reality of modern magical practice, but avoided being textbookish and was a really enjoyable read. Whether I achieved this with the Greenworld trilogy will be judged by history. In the same way that Tolkien considered LOTR history rather than fantasy, because it, to him, was a fictionalised version of his many years of research of Scandinavian and European mythology, The Secrets of Dr Taverner is not fiction or paranormal entertainment. It is real.

Dancing Girls – Margaret Atwood
I am a huge Atwood fan and so a collection of hers needed to be here, but in fact it was hard to choose which one. I landed on Dancing Girls instead of, say, Bluebeard’s Egg, because it contains the story “The Resplendent Quetzal”, a fabulous story, typically Atwoodian, that dissects the weaknesses of man-woman relationships – especially old relationships with old scars and fractures. In it, an apparently ordinary holiday is enjoyed by a man and a woman that don’t really like each other anymore, and ends up on a life raft, where the woman only starts to feel alive once her life, and his life, is threatened. It’s a tough choice between Quetzal and the story “LouLou, Or, The Domestic Life of the Language” in Bluebeard. Loulou is the story of a successful woman potter who finds she is financially supporting all the slack intellectuals and poets that form her ex-husbands and lovers; in return, they patronise her. You’re so Chthonic, LouLou, they say, and laugh at her face when she doesn’t understand the word. Finally she starts seeing an accountant and gains closure.

One of the many things to love about Atwood is her sense of humour; no situation is dire enough not to have a wry smile included somewhere. Even though humans are strange and terrible and great and wonderful, they are also usually a bit ridiculous. And I have also, in all her work, so greatly enjoyed her characters, specifically because she writes original, intelligent female characters that live real and large, and that love language. I somewhat feel that the title, LouLou, Or The Domestic Life of the Language is a reference to Atwood’s own meditations with language, and the practice of many of her characters of playing with it. Tony in The Robber Bride loves backward words. There is much joyful invention of words and punnery in the Oryx and Crake series.  And LouLou lives among male language, the elaborate mummery of over-intellectualism, being the only really real, well-drawn character; real, of the earth, her hands in clay. Atwood is one of the cleverest people on the planet, but she’s too classy to disappear up her own backside with needless pretension. Her abstraction and style is deep and sonorous, intellectual and real. Excuse me while I disappear in a cloud of worship. Ahhhhh.
The Bloody Chamber - Angela Carter
I have a strange relationship with Carter. We haven’t spoken for years. Not since she died. Haha. Bad taste. No, I mean, I love her writing, but I only love it intellectually. There’s something about her characters that are not lovable. But that’s okay. The Bloody Chamber is so amazing that it doesn’t matter. This is a classic of the rewritten/reimagined fairy tale/myth/legend genre, and Carter interrogates the natural gore and sexual undercurrents of the original tales, as well as bringing bodily reality into the stories. I wrote, in my BA dissertation, all those years ago in 1999, “Carter writes the body on the page; corporeality pervades The Bloody Chamber”  - yeah, pretentious – but TRUE. It’s all sweat and piss and blood again. This is a bit of a theme in this list. More importantly, all the stories explore the role of the woman in traditional tales, and frequently re-present female characters in positions of power rather than weakness.
And – factoid - Punk band Daisy Chainsaw adapted the story of "The Lady of the House of Love" for their 1992 music video for "Hope Your Dreams Come True" (from the EP of the same name and also later the album Eleventeen). There you go.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Post punk teenism

Over the past couple of weeks I have been writing to my friend and fellow poet Ryan Ormonde as my 17 year old self, from 1994. He has been responding as his 17 year old self from 1999. We are using the amazing new technology called electronic mail which I have hitherto only encountered as a thing in the future in my Business Studies GCSE.

Having discussed it with with Ryan last night, as we recorded the first two episodes of a series on experimental poetics for Resonance FM, we are both loving the opportunity to write autobiographically but still "in character" as ourselves, but a past-self. And most of all we are both finding it cathartic, and surprising. It's enlightening to know that we were actually pretty cool in our own different ways, that we weren't as sad and pathetic as we thought we were, and we should have given ourselves a bit more of a break.

Music was always incredibly important to me since about 12, and by 17 I was thoroughly immersed in 80s-90s rock and heavy metal, as well as having a good grounding of prog rock from my dad's music collection. But it took until I was 16-17 for my first boyfriend to introduce me to punk. In 1993 he took me to see Henry Rollins in one of his spoken word concerts, though I had no idea who he was, this intense, tattooed man in paradoxically sensible shoes. I do remember, vividly, walking straight past him on the way in, and then feeling like he was talking to me when he launched into a story about how really waster guys get great girls. I really thought he was talking about me and my boyfriend because he saw us on the way in. Was there ever a better example of how it's all about you in your teens?

So, I became a Rollins fan, and soon after heard the Dead Kennedys and The Damned and fell in love. From there it was just a short spit, jump and a pogo over to Jello Biafra's solo career, and his album with Canadian rockers DOA is still in my top five.

You've gotta love Jello, and if his politics sounded paranoid in the 80s - hey, they're looking pretty spot on right about now. Here he is parodying himself on Portlandia.

So, all this to say is that this week I read a great YA novel which reflects my own current trip down memory lane, and plays the tunes that played then and now - I Wanna Be Your Johnny Ramone by Stephanie Kuehnert - who is, coincidentally (OR NOT) based in the capital of hipsterville and home of US punk/grunge, the pacific northwest. Her character Emily Black is a cool girl with impeccable taste in music, and her own punk band, that goes on a voyage of discovery about her own music-loving, absent mother. It's a great coming of age story and I love that it's all about being the weird punky strident feminist girl in a boring small town. It reminded me a little of one of my favourite YA reads, Joanne Proulx's Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet, which is also about music to some degree, and, in its excellent first person voice, was an inspiration for my main character Danny in Crow Moon.

So, though punk is supposedly over, we are still riding its eternal three chords to glory.