Wednesday, 31 August 2011


One of the things I'm trying to fit in at the moment (and a weekend break gave me a good time to ponder it) is a manifesto for Cake magazine, run by Andrew McMillan and Martha Sprackland. A manifesto is exactly what I need to get down on paper at the moment - not because of self-importance or revolutionary zeal but to help me keep a grip on what the purpose and place of all our various projects is. I hope Andrew and Martha won't mind me putting up a first draft here. I've already made a lot of notes for a second draft, and it will take a rather different tone. Ultimately, I think the oppositional stance in the first one is problematic and that it doesn't quite capture what's going on. It's also too long. Here it is anyway, as something to chew over:

"When Kirsty and I talk about what we’re trying to do with Sidekick Books and Fuselit, and with our own writing, the words I’m most sick of hearing myself repeat are ‘collaborative’ and ‘engage’. These are positive, active, optimistic words that seem to fit the enthusiastic tone I want to strike, but our work is probably better defined by what we’re against.

"We are anti-specialist; that is, against adages like ‘write what you know’ and ‘stick to what you’re best at’, or any philosophy that drives a kind of self-ghettoisation - limiting oneself increasingly to one’s strengths and areas of expertise, creating an environment where the individual avoids straying into a field in which they might be shown to be ignorant or incompetent. In terms of poetry, this means we are against a poetry that only looks inward - towards other poetry - to measure its success, the belief that a poem can be good merely because it is like other good poems, or because it is the next step in an assembled narrative of poetry.

"We are anti-‘universal’. That is, we don’t believe in the concept of a poetry that speaks to everyone. There are some poems that are for some people and other poems that are for other people. Not as clear cut as that, of course, but in general, we distrust attempts towards the definition of a ‘human condition’, or any claim that a poem is characterised by a lack of cultural specificity, entirely inclusive, cleansed of any target demographic.

"We are anti-saviour, or, if you like, pro-ensemble. In other words, we reject the narrative of the genius or fated leader who defines their generation (in marketing terms, ‘the next big thing’) and, by extension, the micro-cast of significants - the artistic hegemony. We believe damage is generally done to our poetic culture by forcing a narrative of progress (replete with ‘key figures’) upon it and by searching for a way to comfortably disregard the contributions of the many in order that that narrative be easily digestible.

"What does all this rejecting add up to? It starts with the principle that the widespread practice of any art is more important to our cultural moral health than the results, that we should encourage engagement (there’s that word) over worship. More people writing is therefore not a bad thing. A lack of visible ‘stand-out’ talents is therefore not a bad thing (and no more an indication of a lack of generational talent as it is an abundance of it). Diversity is to be valued over authority. A masterpiece is just a creation of critics and readers in search of a measuring stick.

"It also shares some of the character of the Scottish informationist movement of the 90s, in that we favour a ‘crossing of wires’. We think poetry should be reaching outwards and across, that good poetry is always defined by its connection to something outside of - as well as within - the poetic canon. We think it should engage (again) freely with all the various strands of other lexicons, jargons, histories and subcultures, rather than striving for a kind of blank-slateness or nothing-and-everything appeal.
"We favour the idea that poems - and people - exist in overlapping groups which we move freely between and among. Thus, a book of poems and illustrations celebrating British birds is designed to exist at an intersection of different groups, to facilitate the flow between them. Fuselit, which started it all, uses a single word as a hub, with the idea that poets and other artists come to us from different directions - their personal pathways crossing at the point where an issue is created. All organisation is, essentially, in flux, and loosely defined, and largely non-hierarchical. Rather than celebrating trends or defining moments in poetry, we believe in placing the emphasis on the individual character of a work in the context in which it appears. A practical example of what this means would be that there is nothing ‘lesser’ or easily dismissible in a strong or interesting poem written by someone who was only testing out poetry before moving onto something else. With Fuselit, we have been very happy to catch these occasional oddities and place them alongside the work of those who go on to publish pamphlets and collections.

"In some ways, it is a response to the dilemma of cultural fragmentation, but while the conservative reaction to the same problem is ultimately backward-looking - a vision of reintegration, repairing of boundaries, pruning back of individualism - ours is an attempt to find some kind of harmony with it. We are frequently presented with the false choice of socialism versus capitalism - either everyone (and no one) is special, or natural selection must weed the weak from the strong. What we suggest instead is that on both a social and artistic level, people’s work must be viewed in terms of these overlapping groups, and the meaning of their work must be understood first in relation to its place in their extended families or spheres, rather than how it fits in with the whole, messy, irreducible formula of a whole generation or era. There is room then for everyone who has a serious commitment to being involved. Members of an audience are, on another night, in another context, the figures on the stage."

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Literary Treasures from Derbyshire

I've just returned from a second foray into my native Derbyshire in two months (once on the annual holiday, the second time to visit my grandparents) and feel I should report on the rich poetical discoveries that eventuated from various trips to bookshops.

We went twice to beautiful Scarthins in Cromford, being as it is my favourite bookshop in all the country. Not only did they agree to stocking a few copies of Birdbook, but I uncovered and purchased the following items:

white peak/dark peak is "an audio-visual world-map of The Peak District National Park" written by Alec Finlay and numerous collaborators, with the book acting as a catalogue. It contains Japanese renga and numerous concrete poems (resembling fragments of ordnance survey maps) along with details of the locations to which the poems correspond. The audio part of the project is online, and can be accessed with most mobile phones (though not Nokia N8s, as it turns out) using QR reading software; that is, you point your phone's camera at one of the 20 matrix barcodes and it should access and play the accompanying audio file.

The overall idea seems to be that you go to a location and listen to the poem that was composed in those surroundings, then perhaps write your own. It's an ambitious, inclusive and intriguing project and I warmed to Finlay's introduction, where he states:

"In an age in which plinths are crowded, bronze scarce, poetry proposes itself as the ideal form of public sculpture."

For Years Now by W. G. Sebald and Tess Jaray cost me a mere £3. Despite only containing 23 very short poems, it's a fairly chunky book, fleshed out with abstract illustrations by Jaray that are either beguilingly simple or something like Christmas wrapping paper, depending on your perspective. The poems are likely to be equally divisive. The title one goes:

For years now

I've had this
sound in
my ears.

W. G. Sebald was a lecturer at UEA during my first year there. I attended a couple of his lectures and read Rings of Saturn, just like everyone else on my course. His death was one of those events that left me unsure as to exactly how I should feel or respond.

All I know about Keston Sutherland is that various non-mainstream poets regard him as something of a luminary. Actually, that's not true - I also know, from reading this, his fourth pamphlet, Lidia, that he's a Prynne disciple and very probably studied at Cambridge. So far I have the same mixture of frustration and fascination I experience with a lot of non-mainstream British poetry, ie. it's fragmentary and inconclusive, with flashes of lovely phrasing. Still, £1.50 for a pamphlet from 1996 is always worth a punt, eh?

Moving on to The Bakewell Bookshop, where I picked up Zoe Brigley's The Secret:

Full price this time - but I've been wanting to read it for a while. I also wanted Kirsty to like it, since she's sometimes pessimistic about the number of good female poets around as compared to the male ones. Unfortunately, the book hit three immediate stumbling blocks in earning K's admiration: extensive notes (including the to-be-avoided phrase "As a writer ..."), flowery fonts (used in the last section for dialogue) and ... actually, I forget what the third one was. So the jury is still out!

For my part, I really like some of the poems (including 'Assassin' and 'Saboteaur') but I agree with what I faintly recall was a criticism made at the time it came out - that the poems feel shoehorned into an over-arcing structure for the sake of cleverness.

Another Bloodaxe book, The Air Mines of Mistila by Philip Gross and Sylvia Kantaris is currently out of print and must have been lingering in the bookshop since it first came out (I bought it for an inflation-busting £4.95). Tucked inside the cover, I found a faded brochure for the Poetry Book Society offering me full annual membership for £17.50 and displaying "a few of the new books offered at discount prices to PBS members during 1985-86", which included Fleur Adcock, Geoffrey Hill and Douglas Dunn, as well as a book called 'Portraits of Poets', featuring a despondent-looking Larkin squatting on the cover.

What I've read of Air Mines so far is highly enjoyable. It's of a genre that is currently rather neglected - the collaborative novella-in-verse.

Finally, I picked up this from Bookstore Brierlow Bar, a remainder bookshop near Buxton:

James freaking Sheard for £1.99. This is both a disgrace and a boon. His second collection, Dammtor, was a (requested) Christmas present last year and I was carrying it with me the day I found this. Normally I have an averse reaction to very serious brooding male poets, especially those recommended by Sean O'Brien, but Sheard has such an interesting range of settings and moods, and such skill with neat, short lines that he bypasses that part of my taste. I think he's really, really good.

Before you all run off to the Peaks to get your own copy, however, I should mention that this was the last one on the shelf. In fact, all of the above books were. You have to get 'em before they're gone. That's why I won't particularly miss Waterstones but very much hope that small, second-hand and remainder bookstores go on existing for a long time yet.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Monday, 1 August 2011

The August Contraption Update + Poetry Library Event

The Good

The completion of the latest Fuselit yet, Contraption, is in our sights! Content? Ready six months ago. Display boxes? Check. Transparent stickers? Check. Bonus booklet ready for mass production? Check. Theme tune? Robin says he'll have it done in the next hour. Cover materials? All ready and lined up. Kindle and e-broadsheet editions? Just some gentle tweaking needed. I have set myself several missions in August, and this is the number 1 priority.

The Bad

This is Kirsty's still unfixed mini laptop, which, after a nasty fall, is missing a hinge and needs to be permanently plugged into a wall socket in order to function. It's also the only way we've been able to work on the main Contraption file, since the new computer I bought at the start of the year has had all sorts of problems running Quark. Since it's not the most powerful machine in the world and has a very small screen, this has made progress slow and difficult, particularly as the file needs to be transferred off the laptop for conversion to pdf and test printing.

In fact, so onerous has it been to continue trying to edit and fix problems this way that we're currently rebuilding the whole file in InDesign so that we can do it on the main desktop computer instead. So we've effectively made this magazine twice.

The Hideous

Here's a side-on view of the new printer we acquired in order to streamline the printing process. It was ghosting, so we bought a maintenance kit for it and replaced several parts. It then printed out a few pages absolutely perfectly (just to show that it could) before throwing up error messages. Investigations resulted in the suggestion that we buy and wire in another replacement part. This we have done, as meticulously as we could, and now when you turn it on, it fires up for a moment before dying completely.

I can't pretend I've dealt with this in the most patient manner. We have exciting projects on hand, books to write, causes to champion, poetry to review, bookshops to approach, attention to grab. Frankly, I kind of resent spending large amounts of time cluelessly tinkering with machines and posting on technical forums. Ugh.

Fortunately, I think I have a long-term solution. Will let you know if it works out.

The Event

If you want to know more about how Fuselit is put together, see a preview of Contraption at the stage we're at, or simply want to take us to task on our criminal delays, please come to Between the Sheets: How Poetry Magazines Get Made at the Poetry Library in the Southbank Centre this Wednesday from 8pm. Alongside the editors of Southbank Poetry and Modern Poetry in Translation, we'll be taking part in a discussion on ... well, what I just said. It's a free event in extremely comfortable surroundings and all the editors will be available for merciless interrogation. Huzzah!