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Interview | Bruce McLean

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Bruce McLean is a Scottish performance sculptor who has just written A Lawnmower in the Loft – an amusing and light-hearted collection of snapshot anecdotes from over the years. We stopped by his studio for a chat. 

    

Could you tell our readers a bit about yourself and your work?

That could take a long time. I’m a sculptor. I’ve spent the last 50 years trying to develop modern sculpture through all sorts of different mediums. I’ve just written this book which is nothing to do with sculpture but it’s a kind of history of how I’ve developed and it informs, to some extent, what I do. But I’m actually a sculptor, and people think how can you be making films and videos and writing books and making prints and poems but it’s all the same thing to me.

What inspired you to write an autobiography?

It’s not so much an autobiography. What always amazed me about my mother was that she travelled all over the world, and she’d come back and I’d ask ‘so how did you get on?’. She’d say ‘oh fantastic dear, very nice’, and that was it… there was never a story, nothing ever happened. Every time I go out of the house something terrible or odd happens, and there’s a story in there! And that’s what started me off. There’s all of these silly sort of things that have happened to me in my life and some of them are actually quite funny. So I just thought I’d write down all the little stories, and all of the stories in the book are actually true.

How did you find working on both your art and the book at the same time?

Well it’s just the same thing. So I’d work in my studio on the sculptures or ceramics, and then I go home in the evening, do emails and before supper I’d write a story. So I just did it. It took about a year, just one or two stories a day.

Who were the main influences on your writing?

George Perec mainly, and Lawrence Weschler, who wrote a book called “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees”.  I don’t read a lot of books, I actually find them quite difficult to read, but this one was something else. It was beautifully written and I think if a thing is beautifully written, it’s easy to read! And Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, I read it every year. It never bores me.

Do you enjoy writing?

I quite like writing short texts, and I’ve done a lot of work based on text. So it’s not too separate from what I do. One of the first pieces I ever made (after spending 3 years working and becoming very disillusioned with the art world), was this book called “King for a Day” a list of 1000 pieces. I just wrote it without editing, and if something wasn’t good I didn’t edit it out. That was at the start of my career and now I’m getting towards the end of doing stuff because I’m old, so I thought I’d write a text based piece.

Do you consider the book in the same light as all of your other art?

I wouldn’t call what I do art. I really am a sculptor, and I would say it’s sort of a book sculpture. Well it’s not, but I do consider it part and parcel the same thing.

What inspires your process?

I don’t get inspired. It’s another one I don’t understand, people think I have a “gift”, but there’s no gift about it. I get angry about things, and I think ‘I need to do something about that’. Or something makes me laugh and that makes me do something. It’s just to do with what’s around, and boredom. Boredom’s quite interesting, and it inspires a lot of stuff.

Have you got any more writing in the works?

I’m quite interested in architecture, and my father was an architect. I knew what he built but we never really talked about it, and he always said “oh they’ll discover how good I am when I’m dead”. He died when I was 40 and it turns out he actually was really good! My son found out just how good he was so we’ve decided to make a book on him, called Peter McClean: Invisible Architect. He was really interested in invisible architecture, by that he thought that if you made a really good building, you wouldn’t notice the architecture, you would just instantly feel better.

Bruce’s book, A Lawnmower in the Loft, is available now.

 Watch a clip of our interview here.

 

 

Interview | At the Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet with Michael Joseph

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Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet, The Banquet, 1968 © Michael Joseph

Beggars Banquet is the album that changed everything for the Rolling Stones,’ the band state on their official website, rollingstones.com, ‘the band truly came into their own, and the Rolling Stones’ music of today is a reflection of what happened in the studio in 1968, they reached their musical manhood.’ For such an epochal album it is entirely appropriate that the photographs that the band commissioned to accompany it from the photographer, Michael Joseph, are equally significant, widely considered to be amongst the best photographs taken of them. The images, currently on show at Proud Chelsea, carry an extraordinary, multi-layered power and beauty. They have an arresting and dramatic painterly quality to them, an evocation of the work of Old Masters such as Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel – whom Joseph cites as particular inspirations – in the interior shots and George Stubbs in the exterior ones whilst also taking inspiration as Joseph explains, from the photographs of the 1960s design and photography partnership, Horn/Griner, and ‘the wackiness of William Klein not least with his use of including 35mm edgings into the image’.

The shoot took place over two days, Friday the 7 and Saturday the 8 June 1968, at two locations, Sarum Chase in Hampstead, north west London, and Swarkestone Hall Pavilion, Derbyshire. At the time the Rolling Stones were in the midst of recording Beggars Banquet‘s opening and perhaps most famous track, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. The recording sessions – which are documented in Jean-Luc Goddard’s film, One Plus One – had begun three days earlier at Olympic Sound Studios in Barnes, south west London, and would continue for three days after the photographic shoot. Of all the tracks on the album it also seems appropriate that it was this that the band were recording concurrent with the photographs as it is as equally multi-layered and unconventional as Joseph’s photographs, with an epic historical sweep and musical a style and diverse inspirations including, as Jagger cites in the 2012 documentary, Crossfire Hurricane, Baudelaire, Bob Dylan, and Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, The Master and Margarita, of which Marianne Faithful had given Jagger a copy of the first English translation which had been published the year before.

Sarum Chase, coincidentally adding another layer to the painterliness of the photographs, had been the home and studio of the portraitist and painter of historical and ceremonial events, Frank O. Salisbury. The architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner, described the 1930s neo-Tudor mansion as, ‘pure Hollywood Tudor’, and the scene that greeted the band in the mansion’s great hall when they arrived at the location sounds akin to a Cecil B. DeMille Hollywood film set, as Joseph says:

When the Stones arrived punctually at 11am, I was coaching the animals – a goat, a sheep, a cat and three variously sized dogs – with my megaphone, my Sinar 10×8 large format camera was on an impressive monopod and we had very impressive lighting, a giant swimming pool light on a tall stand and a few strobe strips at odd angles, and the table dressed with bizarre stuffed animals, food including a suckling pig and luckily a few bottles of a very good claret that I had from a previous shoot. They were awestruck!

The location had been sourced and dressed by the stylist for the shoot, Jackie Crier, who also dressed the band in their fabulous tatterdemalion attire evoking a striking mix of seventeenth-century Commedia dell’Arte characters and eighteenth-century Dickensian ne’er-do-wells by way of 1960s Swinging London flourishes. Indeed in their review of Beggars Banquet on its release in December 1968 Time magazine no doubt inspired by Joseph’s photographs described the Rolling Stones as, ‘England’s most subversive roisterers since Fagin’s gang in Oliver Twist‘. The band’s roistering reputation may also have informed the conversation Joseph had when he went to recce the location with a representative of the British Council of Churches to whom Salisbury had bequeathed Sarum Chase on his death in 1962. Joseph was concerned that the banquet and animals might leave a mess but the B.C.C.’s only concern, he says, ‘was if there might be “ladies” in it’. When Joseph questioned him further about this he says the reply was, ‘”Well, Mr Joseph, if any of the ladies are naked we charge £10 extra”‘.

Crier and Joseph had been introduced by David Puttnam, now Baron Puttnam, who at that time had a photographic agency and represented them both alongside other photographers including David Bailey and Brian Duffy. Joseph and Puttnam had first met when the latter was working at Collett Dickenson Pearce & Partners (CDP), a glamorous and highly influential advertising agency which played a key role in the cultural shifts of the 1960s and whose alumni include Charles Saatchi, Sir Alan Parker and Sir Ridley Scott. Joseph began photographing high profile advertising campaigns for CDP in the mid-1960s continuing through to the 2000s for clients including Benson and Hedges, Christies, Nivea, Pirelli and Schweppes. One campaign which Joseph cites as bringing to the attention of the Rolling Stones was for White Horse whisky:

My White Horse campaign was so wacky for 1965, one shot featured Paulene Stone in a  white bathtub  in a lavish set with a white horse breathing down her neck, another featured a panelled boardroom scene, which inadvertently had a Mick Jagger lookalike sitting on the table, surrounded by advisors, smoking cigars and a white horse at the head of the table. I don’t think any other photographer had such wacky stuff at the time.

With only two hours to photograph the band on the first day and live animals in the mix as well Joseph decided to utilise the megaphone technique that he had perfected photographing ten different sized dogs for a Lufthansa campaign just prior to the Beggars Banquet shoot. ‘I made all sorts of noises through the megaphone to keep them amused and they obeyed me implicitly,’ he says, ‘luckily the Stones also behaved likewise! They could relax and I’d shoot on “three” and a few odd noises later!’

Mick & Chick, 1968
© Michael Joseph

That the Rolling Stones were enjoying the process of working with Joseph is borne out by Mick Jagger inviting Joseph and his girlfriend at the end of the first day to travel to the next day’s location in his car. ‘He has two jump seats in his Daimler,’ Joseph recalls, ‘and most of the two hour journey up the newly opened M1 was spent racing the rest of the band in a similar Daimler to Swarkestone Hall Pavilion!’ The seventeenth-century pavilion stands in a large field called The Cuttle near the ruins of Swarkestone Hall. The exact purpose of the building is a subject of conjecture but it may have been a grandstand, summerhouse, or appropriately for the shoot a banqueting house. In racing to the location they arrived quite a while before Crier who was travelling in a van with both the Sinar camera and the props for the shoot. The bonhomie continued as Joseph explains that he was, ‘immensely pleased how co-operative everyone was in shooting numerous little cameos with my Hasselblad, which I thought could be useful, but were also to keep the Stones occupied whilst we waited as I felt if given a chance they may scarper to a local pub and never come out!’

The shots that Jospeh had planned for the Swarkestone location were intended to to be for the cover of Beggars Banquet. When Crier arrived they shot the back cover shot first, the band playing cricket in the long grass of the field. In the background she and Joseph place a white, three-legged piano which she had discovered. The piano is both wonderfully incongruous in the rural scene but also adds to the narrative allure of the photographs as though the band have emerged the morning after a decadent banquet. The final shot of the shoot was to have been the front cover and features the Rolling Stones lying in the grass in front of the pavilion with smoke atmospherically pouring from its windows. A little while after he lit the smoke bombs, Joseph says, ‘we heard a police siren wailing and then two jovial coppers came over to say they’d had a fire reported, but they were pleased to see the band posing – sadly they left before I had a chance to ask them to be in the shot!’

Although these photographs were intended to be the cover images a disagreement between the band and the record company meant that not only were neither used but the image that the band put forward instead – a graffitied toilet – was also not used until the album was reissued. When the album was released in December 1968 it appeared in a purely typographic cover styled like an invitation: ‘Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet RSVP’. Joseph’s photograph from Sarum Chase of the band around the banqueting table was used however in the sleeve’s gatefold. Although it was not entirely as Joseph had planned. Overnight, between the two shoot days, he had one of his photographs of the scene, which he had shot on Kodak Kodalith, a super high contrast 35mm black and white film, printed up and whilst having tea after shooting the final shot at Swarkestone he showed the print to Jagger. ‘Did Mick go over the moon!’, Joseph says, ‘He had never seen anything like it. But he felt it was boring in black and white, so he took it away and to my horror he hand-coloured it very garishly…’ Jagger’s hand-coloured version of the photograph is how it appeared on the album sleeve and, as Joseph concludes, ‘the rest is history’.

Historical perspective adds another layer to Joseph’s beautiful and extraordinary photographs. It is fascinating to see the Rolling Stones so relaxed, at play, in many ways in celebratory mood at the tipping point of the tracks and album that became their ‘coming of age’. But there is also a poignancy – perhaps an element of the last summer of youth – compound by the fact that less that a year after the shots were taken Brian Jones had died. That said the photographs are both of the their time, but equally stand out of their times with a transportive quality that immerses one.

By Guy Sangster-Adams


Beggars Banquet: Photographs by Michael Joseph
Proud Chelsea (www.proudonline.co.uk)
Until 30 July 2017

An interview with Fiona Sampson

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Fiona Sampson MBE is a poet and writer, published in thirty-seven languages, who has received international prizes in the US, India, Macedonia and Bosnia. A Fellow and Council member of the Royal Society of Literature, she’s published twenty-seven books, received the Newdigate Prize, a Cholmondeley Award, Hawthornden Fellowship and numerous awards from the Arts Councils of England and Wales, the Society of Authors and Poetry Book Society and twice been shortlisted for both T.S. Eliot and Forward Prizes. Her new books are Lyric Cousins: musical form in poetry (EUP), the poetry collection The Catch (Penguin) (both out last year) and a prose study of Limestone Country (Little Toller, May 2017). She’s just finished In Search of Mary Shelley, a new psychological biography commissioned for the bicentenary of Frankenstein (Profile, 2018). Her website is www.fionasampson.co.uk

Congratulations on the MBE for services to literature and the literary community which you received in the New Year’s Honours! In the press release you describe 2016 as “an astonishing year”: could you tell us something about what you’ve been working on?

Thank you! To be honest it depends when the “year” starts. In 2016 I published The Catch (Penguin Random House), my latest collection. It’s a book about happiness, continuity, and wishfulness… I love poems that transform, or turn-around, their material in one way or another. I prefer myth to snapshot, and music to lecture, to put it another way! Also, the poems in The Catch are entirely in strict form: single sentence poems, in which every line has a regular number of stresses and each line must make semantic and musical sense. None of those chopped-up prose clunky line-breaks, the kind I think of as North American, with conjunctions or prepositions bulging from the ends of lines under the weight they have to bear… Oh, and not regular metre but the springiness of speech-rhythm: to put it another way, not regular feet but regular numbers of feet. I always think technique should bury itself so that it becomes incorporated, its effects subliminal rather than disciplinary.

Then Lyric Cousins: poetry and musical form came out in the autumn and was lots of hard work. It’s hard to be technical and write for a general reader at the same time. But I believe one should: it’s like teaching, even at the highest level: one should seduce in the telling! Lyric Cousins looks at musical forms (not, initially at least, at song metre but at forms prior to that, including breath, chromaticism, density) and how they work themselves out in verse as they do in music. I used to be a musician, so of course the topic interests me: but I also believe the links and similarities are highly pertinent for both poets and composers. I think, for example, that the grammar of a thought – of any thought – is limited to phrasal breath-length. These are ideas I started to develop when I was invited to give the Newcastle Lectures by what is now NCLA. Those three lectures are now expanded into a monograph. Unfortunately, this book is published by the very fine Edinburgh University Press, which means it’s rather expensive. I’m hoping the kind people who tell me they want to read it (perhaps they’re hinting that they’d like a copy – but it’s so expensive I can’t afford to give any away, which feels mortifying -) will order it from their libraries…!

Then 2016 also saw a couple of books in translation. Coleshill came out as Kolshil in Bosnia and won a prize, the Slovo Podgrmec; and The Catch came out as Volta in Romania. And then, this January, The Catch came out as Da PotopaOn the Brink – in Russian. You’ll notice that its title doesn’t tend to get translated “straight”: that’s because the multiple meanings of “the catch”, including a round-song, get lost in translation. Which is a fascinating topic I’d like to talk more about, if we have the chance.

What I’ve been busy working on this year are two prose books – and a poet-to-poet translation research project. The books are Limestone Country, published by Little Toller in May, which is about how a particular geology produces a particular ecology and so particular ways of life: my emerging interest in writing about place is definitely an interest in how humans live in and change and are changed by the natural environment. Then, next January, my new psychological biography of Mary Shelley is published by Profile for the bicentenary of Frankenstein. It’s called In Search of Mary Shelley: the girl who wrote Frankenstein and in it I am trying to take on the Romantic project itself and, without any fictionalizing, to excavate all that we can know about what sort of person Mary was, and how she experienced things, from the record which – just because she was a Romantic – she kept in letters and journals as well as in her published writing.

As well as writing and reviewing, and teaching and researching at the University of Roehampton, where you’re the Professor of Poetry and Director of the Poetry Centre, you will be Ledbury Poetry Festival’s poet-in-residence 2017. The Festival turns 21 this year – a coming-of-age of sorts. How would you describe its place in the constellation of poetry-related events and projects in this country? 

The Ledbury Festival is now one of the leading English poetry festivals: alas, a few years ago Arts Council England axed the funding to the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, which was magnificently independent in spirit. Poetry International at the Southbank Centre in London has somewhat disappeared into their general fine programming; it waxes and wanes. Scotland has StAnza in St Andrews, which is truly international. But Ledbury is now consciously moving further, as I understand it, into internationalism. It’s always celebrated both national and international poets, so I think this is very exciting.

Actually I founded an international poetry festival in Aberystwyth myself, just before Ledbury was founded; from which I know that in those days festivals were not the fashion. Ledbury had tremendous vision.

There’s something very important about bringing work of real artistic excellence out of London, and particularly into the countryside. Visual artists have long moved out of London to find the space and affordability in which to make their work: think of the St Ives school, or Capel-y-ffin and Eric Gill. Musicians too: the wonderful British composers of the twentieth century and on, from Edward Elgar to Harrison Birtwistle, from Benjamin Britten to Michael Tippett, have lived and worked outside London. But publishing is very metropolitan, which means that British poetry has for too long been largely a village of Londoners (not a paradox, oddly). So festivals, which take on the European model of going out into the countryside to be festive, are a really important part of the calendar. They come in all shapes and sizes, from the wonderful new Kendal Poetry Festival which kicked off last year, and is intimate and genuinely suffused with enthusiasm, to Edinburgh Bookfest, where I’ll be later in the summer.

As the programme indicates, you’ve brought together a number of wonderful initiatives at this year’s Festival – I’m particularly excited about the spotlight on Romanian Women poets. What new spaces or conversations do you think these projects will open at the Festival?  

It’s been lovely to curate two international events. I’m so grateful to Ledbury for the chance to do so: especially without having to raise the money and do the admin, which is usually the price of such plans and dreams!

I’m a huge fan of internationalism. I simply think it teaches one that there are other ways of going on… You might think that’s obvious in a culturally diverse country such as the UK, but I think that even our most culturally diversified individual poets get co-opted into the little-London mentality. And that’s such a shame. It’s surely provincial to think anywhere is the centre of the world, in our global society.

Also, to be frank, I just plain have literary and cultural curiosity. And I’m a wee bit suspicious of people who don’t. So I’ve invited six poets whose work I love, but under two specific rubrics (otherwise, there would have been nowhere for me to stop – so many marvellous poets I’d love to invite…). There’s a group of Romanian women poets, because there’s such a concentration of excellence there and because they are terrific, bold role-models for our still rather over-policed British women poets. Working with the wonderful Gabriela Mocan at the Romanian Cultural Institute, we are lucky to have secured Ana Blandiana, Magda Carneci and Liliana Ursu: three major, and incredibly diverse, voices in South-East Europe. And then there’s an event looking at the different ways poets live their poetry lives in different countries. For example, a mix of editing, reviewing and writing which I rather fancy myself – the poet as writer and intellectual – has long been regarded with (ahem) suspicion here in the UK. But elsewhere in the world it’s normal to the point of cliché. So we have European poet-editor Maria Galina, a Ukrainian working in Moscow at the great Novy Mir, Christopher Merrill, the North American poet who directs the Iowa Writing Workshop, that towering pioneer among university creative writing programmes, and Patrick Dubost, French musician/experimental performer, who really does experiment and really does perform…

You’ll be judging the Ledbury Poetry Festival’s Poetry Competition. Could you shed a little light on what you look for when judging competitions and prizes? 

I think that competition judging is like editing: you have to do it in a spirit of utmost integrity and enthusiasm. You have to be looking for the best work, and to feel a leap of enthusiasm when you discover it. You have, also, to feel that you are opening a door rather than closing one; and you have above all to make your selections bearing in mind, and against the grain of, your own prejudices. You have to have a thick skin and just know that even if you make mistakes, you did so by accident, and in good faith.

I’ve done quite a lot of judging, and have come to the conclusion that prizes are a necessary evil. They’re not what poetry is about; but they can help poets thrive. At the moment I Chair the annual European Lyric Atlas award in Bosnia, and this year I’ll also chair the annual Roehampton Prize: it’s for the best single collection published by someone of any nationality who is living and working in the UK at the time of publication. An attempt not to close down our reading borders but to support on-the-ground British poetry practice when the main prizes tend to get won by foreign “stars” who come in, grab the goods and disappear… In recent years I’ve found myself judging a number of prizes, of course always with different combinations of co-judges (the Eliot, the Forwards, the Independent Foreign Fiction, the Ondaatje, the Griffin, the Irish Times Impac, etc). It’s a form of service to the poetry community, it seems to me. To do it properly and actually read all the submissions, I mean: which too many, to my astonishment, don’t. It is a lot of reading, judging a book prize: but you shouldn’t do it unless your attitude is Wow, I get to read all the books published this year for free rather than Oh no, all these books to read.

This all sounds like a form of outreach. Do you see a relationship between community work and art practice?

My own relationship to poetry was forged by community work. I was an early developer of poetry in health and social care; a practice in which you work constantly with people in tough places, sometimes in extremis. It’s a huge privilege and fascinating as well as moving. It taught me how people with absolutely no background interest in poetry are moved by the Real Thing, and understand its relevance at the great moments in life: indeed, need it then. That has shaped my writing, editing, and promotional practice ever since. It’s also why I was a mature student – I wanted to articulate what was going on and why I thought this was the real deal in the same way as high art. It was why I did a doctorate in applied philosophy of language. I ended up writing numerous papers and chapters and eventually books about it.

Poetry isn’t for a game of competition and ego. It’s for being the Real Thing.

Have you, then, found your style or process changing as a result of working with others, or on similar projects? 

I love collaborating! The poet-to-poet translation project I’m working on right now with the poet Bill Herbert and the translator Francis Jones is a two-year AHRC-funded research project into what happens when poets co-translate. In the project we’re using intermediary, literal translators too, and working in trios. As well as measuring and examining, we want to mark out and celebrate this practice, which tends to spring up organically – indeed, chiefly at international festivals and fellowships. Poets meet each other, love each other’s work, and decide to collaborate.

I’ve also worked a lot with composers, naturally; and with visual artists. At the moment I’m working with a Swedish landscape photographer, Jan Peter Lahall, on a project about our environment – it will be an exhibition and an artists’ book. I think some poets and artists really love collaborating: Jan Peter for example has already worked with a Swedish and with a Ukrainian poet.

So to sum up, if poetry is to have a place in our communities and our lives, how can we best bring it into the limelight? 

We have to keep the faith. We have to remember the real reasons for doing it, and return to them over and over. In the long run, that is what will ensure we have something good and real to hand on when the culture shifts again, and shifts towards more poetry (the way it is in many other countries right now).

And I think we have to keep the circle widening, so to speak. Not contract into defensiveness, lack of interest in international or new poets, and a refusal to engage with the wider community. We have to keep doing it over and over… in tiny local libraries in the UK as well as on prime time TV abroad, to kids in schools as well as on Radio 4 audience.

 

By Theophilus Kwek


The full festival programme will be available from Wednesday 26th April on the Ledbury website here.

Short Story Competition 2016 | An interview with Angus Cargill

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With just over a month until our Short Story Competition 2016 closes, we caught up with judge Angus Cargill and found out about his favourite short story, what he’s currently reading and what he sees as they key elements of a short story (take note, competition entrants!).

 

What are you currently reading? And what specifically did you like about it?

The three last novels I read, away from work, were My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, Transit by Rachel Cusk and Willnot by James Sallis – three short novels that would be said to be from different genres (the first two ‘literary’, the third ‘crime) but were similar in many ways – spare and enigmatic, and yet they all manage to be both gripping and intensely moving. I’ll be doing well to read anything else as good this year, and would highly recommend all three.

What is your favourite short story, and why is it your favourite?

‘Two Boys and a Girl’ by Tobias Wolff, the perfect story (with the perfect title), about the confusion, pain and excitement of adolescence, which still, whenever I re-read it, seems truthful and alive.

Which writer’s work can you always rely on to inspire your creative process?

Lorrie Moore’s short stories, and Raymond Carver’s, anything by David Peace, George Pelecanos or Megan Abbott, Robert Cormier’s YA novels, Adrian Tomine’s graphic novels.

In your opinion, what are the key elements of a good short story?

I love stories that feel like you’re just getting a moment or window onto something, almost like a glance, and that the author knows what not to write, what to hold back, as much as they choose to put in.

What advice can you give entrants to the Short Story Competition 2016?

Be brave.

 


Angus Cargill is Editorial Director at Faber & Faber, where he was worked since 2000. He edits and publishes writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Sebastian Barry, Jane Harris, David Peace, Nadeem Aslam and Lucy Caldwell, as well as non-fiction authors Peter Pomerantsev, Nick Kent and Barney Hoskyns. He also runs Faber’s crime list – which includes Peter Swanson, Chris Pavone, Laura Lippman, Stav Sherez and Alafair Burke, among others – and has published a number of graphic novels, by Emily Carroll, Craig Thompson and Adrian Tomine.

An interview with Ian McMillian

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Photo by Jon Parker Lee

In this interview with Ian McMillan, The London Magazines Editor, Steven O’Brien, and Production Manager, Rachel Chanter, discuss Ian McMillan’s most recent collection of selected poems, To Fold the Evening Star.

SO’B: I was just reading an old, friendly poem in To Fold the Evening Star, one I haven’t read for ages – ‘It’s Only a Novelty Coronation Street Alarm Clock’. How did you decide which poems to select?

IM: Well there were some newer ones that hadn’t been published anywhere, and then there were the three Smith|Doorstop pamphlets which I put in as they were. After writing lots of other kinds of things for a few years, lyrics, librettos and non-fiction, suddenly I had a rush of writing poems, but those three pamphlets I kept.

Going back and looking at stuff from 1994, things that maybe didn’t seem to work as well I didn’t include, but most of it I kept. I was just amazed about how much there was. When I got the proof and it was 200 odd pages! Goodness me.

That’s amazing, you’re very prolific!

Well I am really but I didn’t realise I was that prolific! Thing is, I’m not a great archiver or keeper of things. I’m always more interested in the thing I’m writing today rather than what I’ll write tomorrow. When I look back at all these poems I just think, yes I have written a lot, and I’m certainly interested in them, but I’m always more interested in the thing I’m going to do next. So, it’s a pleasant surprise when you find a poem and think god, I’d forgotten about that one!

What’s it like to look at back at the ‘archived self’?

It’s just like when you get old photographs out the biscuit tin and you think, who’s that little lad? Who is that, that dark haired young lad, that fella right on the edge of the picture? Sometimes I read poems that I’ve written and I wonder what I was thinking about when I wrote that. Because I’ve been around for so long, this is the second book of selected poems that I’ve had. The first one came out in the late eighties, so that’s even stranger, looking back all those years. But you find these poems and you think oh, look at these old friends, look at these acquaintances… who are these strangers? It’s a fascinating process – it could make you nostalgic, I try not to let that happen. I try to make it remind me that I can still carry on writing poems. I suppose it’s like when you put a piece of wood and put it under a piano to stop it wobbling – it’s something that stops you thinking ‘well I’ve never written any poems before’, instead it reminds you that you actually have written quite a few, and I can carry on and write some more.

How do you feel about being referred to as the ‘John Peel‘ of poetry?

That’s an ancient thing that Alec Finlay said about me many years ago – partly because John Peel likes picking up new bands and new music – with poetry I get very excited by new voices, poetry by people I’ve not read before, by people who show promise. This is partly because people send me poems, partly because I’m always reading poems. I feel like we’re in a good time for poetry at the moment, lots of people are writing poems and I just still get excited finding new voices, so that’s the John Peel of poetry, really. Also I wear shapeless cardigans like he used to.

Photo by Ruth Bourne
Photo by Ruth Bourne

You said we’re in a good time for poetry at the moment. Can you comment on how and why that is so?

I think the profile [of contemporary poetry] is high at  the moment and it’s partly due – I’m not being flattering – to magazines like The London Magazine that have been around for a long time. It’s also to do with the fact that creative writing is being taught at universities. Now that’s increasing – it’s a bit like with music and art colleges – writers are appearing. They’ve been taught for three years, and now they’re setting up magazines and readings, doing events. Then there’s National Poetry Day… poetry just seems to be part of the nation’s cultural toolbox. I mean, it always was but when I look back to when I first started in the mid 70s, there were magazines around but there’s a lot more around now, so I think poetry is in a good place. There’s more people reading it, more people writing it, it seems to have a higher profile than it has for a while.

There’s all kinds of reasons for this, things like the T. S. Eliot Prize doing well, the Forward Prizes, all these big prizes. Carol Ann Duffy is also doing a great job as poet laureate, as Andrew Motion did before her – they upped the profile a bit. So it’s becoming like an ordinary thing to do, in a good way, it can take its place alongside theatre, film and music as the things people look at when they’re thinking of culture.

And you yourself have embraced a public role as a very generous ‘promotive’ poet. What can you say about that?

Well I’ve always enjoyed reading other people’s work, and there was a young writer, when I first started, that I was praised by, called Pete Morgan. I used to go along and see him – I can’t believe I did it – he used to live in York and I used to go over to his house, I just knocked at his door and went in! I realise now what an imposition that was. He was kind. He’d say ‘come in and have a cup of tea, let’s have a look at these poems’, and we’d talk about them.

 I just think that, if you can’t encourage people, then don’t bother. If someone sends me a book to review and I don’t like it, I send it back and say, look, get someone else to review it. I think for me there’s always been this split between the avant-garde and the populist, and I’ve always embraced the avant-garde. I love reading strange and weird stuff, I love reading J. H. Prynne, but on the other hand, I enjoy standing up and performing, making people laugh and making them think that this can be an inclusive thing. I’ve always tried to be generous and not exclude anybody, because I know how bad it is to be excluded, when people take no notice of your work.

I think for me the dilemma is always then, where do you find the time to read it all? You must find that.

All the books, all the magazines, all the poems that people give you – if you’re going to give them all the right amount of attention you should, then how on earth do you do it? I mean, today is an unusual day, that the postman didn’t bring any books of poetry or magazines, but I know tomorrow I’ll just get twice as many. So that’s the thing, to be generous – and I like to be generous – there’s this dilemma of when, where do you find the time to read it all?

We also wanted to ask – you’re known particularly as a Yorkshire poet. How you step out of the role as regional poet?

Well I think the more local you can be, the more universal you become. I always quote Roy Fisher, who stated in one of his poems, ‘Birmingham Is What I think with’. I like the idea that Barnsley is what I think with. I can still think universally though. If you think of someone like Tony Harrison who thinks with Leeds – you can think as locally as you can, and still be universal.

I was thinking about what Andy Croft said, that you go to an event and say: ‘We’ve got some local beer!’ and then everyone will cheer, then you say ‘We’ve got some local cheese!’ and everyone says go ‘Oh great!’ Then, you say ‘We’ve got some local poets!’ and people sigh. So somehow, the local poets are left out. But really, local poets can be as good as the perceived national poets.

Have poetry awards become an important part of the life and culture of poetry?

I think it has in the last forty years – there’s been an explosion in the numbers of poetry competitions. The reason I like poetry prizes, is that they make the poems stand alone on their own two feet. If you take a poem along to a workshop then you know you can sit around and talk about the poems. If someone sends a group of poems to The London Magazine, they know you’ll respond. But, with a poetry competition, you know you’ve got to write the best poem you can because you want it to win some money – you want it to capture the attention of the judges. I think they’re great for poetry. They make people sit down and write good poems.

Do you have any recommendations of new voices, new poets or collections that you really think have stood out?

There’s someone I’ve just read, Nia Davies from Hafan Press’s Boiled String Chapbook series. Her pamphlet I think is remarkable. It’s called ‘Long Words’ and she’s taken long words from other languages and used the word as the basis for a poem. For example, her first poem in the book is called ‘The Hatch a Bullet Flies out of when Exiting a Tunnel’ which is a translation of one single Estonian word. So she’s taken these words from the Estonian language, from Croatian, from Hungarian and made fantastic poems out of them. She’s a real find, as far as I’m concerned.

There was someone else I was getting excited about… Sam Quill. In the PN Review, he had 14 sonnets that are quite remarkable. He lives in South London and apparently these sonnets were his first in print which is exciting.

I’m always getting sent stuff and getting excited, which is good because it proves there’s plenty of exciting things happening.

And finally, could you say a few words about our upcoming Poetry Prize 2016?

Well, the poetry competition is a level playing field, whatever you send in will be on the same level as everyone else’s. If people don’t know who you are that doesn’t matter.

 

By Abi Lofthouse


unspecifiedIan McMillan is poet-in-residence for The Academy of Urbanism and Barnsley FC. He presents The Verb every week on BBC R3 and he’s a regular on Coast, BBC Breakfast, Countryfile, Pick of the Week and Last Word. He’s been a castaway on Desert Island Discs. Previously he was resident poet for English National Opera, Yorkshire TV’s Investigative Poet and Humberside Police’s Beat Poet. His rip-roaring poetry shows are legendary. Cats make him sneeze.

To Fold the Evening Star, Ian McMillan, Carcanet Press, 2016, £9.99

Faber New Poets: in conversation

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Faber New Poets [left to right Sam Buchan-Watts, Rachel Curzon, Crispin Best and Elaine Beckett]. Photograph © Thea Hawlin

The Faber New Poets scheme, now in its fourth incarnation, provides a platform for new voices and has launched the careers of poets such as Jack Underwood, Rachael Allen, Sam Riviere and Will Burns. This year’s poets are Rachel Curzon, Elaine Beckett, Sam Buchan-Watts and Crispin Best, all of whom will have pamphlets published this spring. We visited the Faber offices to speak to the Faber New Poets before their official debut at the Faber Social. Here’s what they had to say . . . 

So since you’ve found out what has the experience been like? Has it been very structured or is it only just starting?

Crispin Best [CB]: Well they did just tell us and I don’t think any of us knew what to expect. We’ve just found out loads of information about what to expect, and what the mentorship actually means. I had no idea what that meant – I just thought it was them going ‘we’ll help you out’ sometimes’. But there’s literally going to be a person who is your mentor.

And how do they choose the mentors? Do you get a say in it?  

Elaine Beckett [EB]: Yes, it’s a conversation with them about ideas you might have yourself and what they might think of them. Suggestions they might have . . .

Do they have to be existing Faber poets?

Rachel Curzon [RC]: No apparently not, I thought they might but no. It could be anyone, anywhere.

Do you have any ideas of who you’d like to pick?

CB: I really don’t at all. [to other poets] Would you have a dream team? Would you have like a list do you think? [heads around the table nod] You guys are way ahead of me.

RC: Yeah I have got a little wish list but they shall remain [taps nose].

EB: I suppose it’s a bit unusual in the way that you might not know the person who you think you might be able to work with and you’ve never met them before.

CB: Apparently no one has ever said no. They claim every mentor who has been asked has said yes, which is unbelievable.

EB: Yeah we’re powerful you see.

So in terms of putting together the pamphlets, which are out fairly soon [April 2016], are they composed of things you’ve already written or do you write new material for them? What’s the experience of actually putting them together like?

RC: So we’ve checked our proofs now and they’re in production I think, aren’t they? So they’ll be ready in February, so part of it’s all done.

CB: Did you guys swap any poems out or add any in from the original thing? You did [looks at Sam who nods] How much did you change?

Sam Buchan-Watts: Yeah a couple.

CB: So it’s still pretty much the same length.

SB-W: Yeah.

CB: So for us, we submitted them over a year ago, December 2014, and then we were able to change a bit of it – but they weren’t encouraging us to – but that was the thing that was accepted.

So your submission was essentially the finished pamphlet?

EB: Yeah, we were allowed to swap in one or two if we wanted to.

Why did you make the changes?

SB-W: Just slightly newer work, and Martha [Sprackland – Faber’s assistant poetry editor] was receptive and said yes.

How many poems are in the pamphlet?

SB-W: Sixteen poems, seventeen pages

CB: They added in one for me so I have eighteen pages. I have the longest one.

EB: I think I have seventeen pages.

CB: Okay good so it’s a mix then. I wasn’t trying to have the longest pamphlet honest.

EB: I was missing poems in the end so I had to find three more poems.

CB: What happened to the other ones? Or was it just a shorter submission in the first place?

EB: Maybe I used the wrong size font?

We were talking earlier about how finding the time to write can be an issue and we were wondering about what jobs you may have had in the past, or you have now, and how you’ve managed to keep the poetry going?

R: Well I’m an English teacher, so you’d think that was probably a good dove-tailing, but often you’re spending more time on other people’s work rather than your own. So it has to be a conscious decision to make some space I think. Finding that balance is something I find it quite difficult.

Do you find time in the evenings when you have to tell yourself to stop work and start writing?

RC: For me it’s Wednesday afternoons.

In terms of your backgrounds as poets, has it been a very quiet thing that you’ve been cultivating on your own which you then decided to send out to Faber or is this a very conscious move?

CB: I did my original masters in creative writing at Manchester in prose and I pretty much despised poetry at that point which was very strange . . . I was like ‘there’s nothing poetry can do that prose can’t do as well’.

So you’ve come full circle?  

CB: Exactly. I was in denial, I was a closet poet, and I came out I guess when I realised that fiction was not good at some things either. So I started writing poems probably about four, five years ago and then not really knowing. There’s no obvious thing to do when you start.

EB: No it’s not like a career path is it? It’s just something happens to you, or you notice something that you feel is very important I suppose. Well that’s how it is for me anyway.

Have you written poetry for a long time, Elaine?

EB: No. I wrote poetry when I was young, as one does – a sort of documentary. It wasn’t really until later, quite a lot later that I started to write poetry, quite by chance in a way.

And how did you come to Annie’s group? [Elaine belongs to a Dorset writing group led by Annie Freud.]

EB: I saw a postcard she’d written in the local health-food shop saying ‘Poetry Group’. I’d only been living there about six months and I was eager to meet people so I thought ‘I’ll try that’.

CB: So that was what got you back writing? A health-food shop? That’s amazing!

If you’re a budding poet and then you suddenly find in the place you’ve moved to that Annie Freud has a writing group . . .

EB: I had no idea. I had no desire to write poetry, I mean I wasn’t going there to write poetry. I was just moving there.

That’s a really good story in itself.

EB: I remember driving up and over the hill thinking; ‘wow I’m really excited about this . . . why?’ For the last three years I’ve also been studying with Greta Stoddart via her Poetry School monthly seminars. To have such excellent teachers nearby has been brilliant.

SB-W: I started writing poetry at Goldsmiths. That’s when I started co-editing clinic (a poetry journal), and after graduating in 2010 I worked for five years in an independent bookshop, John Sandoes, so was lucky to still be in an environment conducive to poem reading and writing.

[To Rachel Curzon] Do you find yourself inspired by what you were teaching?

RC: Yes. I think I’ve been beavering away quite quietly but I was lucky enough to get a Gregory Award back in 2007, which gave me confidence, and I was really grateful for that.

So you’re all going to be performing tonight [at the Faber New Voices Social]. Are you feeling good about it?

CB: I’ve just found out I’m going first, which has actually made me feel better about it. I was feeling anxious. I do some readings occasionally, but I realised I was starting to feel a quite nervous about this. But now I’ve realised it’s given me a ‘if it goes wrong it’s because I was on first’ excuse. It’s off my shoulders completely; they’ve basically given me a get out of jail free card.

EB: I’m feeling bad now about going last.

CB: Sorry.

How much experience do you all have of performing?

EB: I’ve done a bit, and I’ve done other sorts of performing.

When you write a poem do you ever find yourself very eager to try it out with an audience? Do you find it changes when you read, or that you go back and redraft because of the way you’ve read it? Does that feed a lot into the process of your writing?

EB: That’s a good question.

SB-W: Well it gets harder to edit a poem the more you read it out in a public sphere maybe. But reading poems as you’re writing them is quite an important thing as well.

RC: I haven’t really done any performances, so this is very new to me, but I do draft by reading it out.

Performance is really important, and it’s a great way to experience new work so we’re excited to see you guys tonight.

EB: I’ve got a very quiet voice.

Quiet can be good though, it’s intense, it forces people to listen.

EB: Yes, if they can hear it at all!

Sometimes it’s incredibly commanding to be quiet.

CB: One of the best readings I ever heard was basically in a whisper so yes, it really doesn’t really need to be loud.

EB: Well, you’ve just got to be yourself really I guess.

Do you have any particular hopes about how your poetry will be received? You’ve got a voice now that people want to listen to. What do you want to say?

EB: Well I think it is the question. If you write a poem or something comes to you and you think ‘that’s a poem’ and you write it and you think ‘hang on a minute, what’s the point of that? Who on earth would be interested?’ Or should you be writing about things that are going on in the world and making a political statement or is it just a confession of some kind? What exactly is it? I still don’t know what a poem really is. Just a rather miraculous little thing that happens.

Poetry which questions what poetry is for also has immense value in itself.

CB: My answer would be that I want to challenge what has a place. It seems funny to me that I would be published by such an established name. I have poems where people are having a wee, and animals are wearing sunglasses, which I think are sort of provocations to this slightly stuffy poetry world that sometimes you come into which – when it’s done well – is phenomenal, but is so often not to my taste. But yes my answer would be questioning, sneaking things into poems that shouldn’t be there.

Covert poems. [To Crispin Best] The poems of yours that I’ve seen are quite structured on the page. Do you find that alters how you’re reading them or is something lost in reading?

CB: It comes back to the idea of if you’re writing something to be read out or something to be read off the page. A page versus stage sort of thing. But I started writing poems with no care for what they looked like on the page at all, it’s only recently I’ve started playing around and having more fun with what it looks like. But I’d say it’s more to do with what you can get away with, to an extent, and also in terms of how it looks on the page, what you can bend, adding in margins where they shouldn’t be and stuff more recently . . .

SB-W: There are a couple of poems in my pamphlet that form a sequence. It was at a time I’d sort of hit a wall and I just started writing in prose and reading a lot more prose, and then playing around with margins and the ideas of a prose poem. I found it really liberating in a way, to not be thinking about convention in terms of ‘the line’ and ‘the line end’.

It’s nice how the poetry market seems to have really opened up to the prose poem. There definitely used to be very clear demarcations with regard to genre, but it’s given poets who were finding quite a rigid generic boundary in the publishing world space for a lot of interesting work to come through. Do you force yourself to experiment? Or do you find there are forms you gravitate towards?

EB: I’ve tried certain forms because I don’t usually write in them, experimenting with what it will bring up so that’s sometimes been quite interesting.

RC: If I set out to write a sonnet it often does anything but, I think I have to do it the other way round sometimes.

What are your expectations for the tour? [The Faber New Poets will go on a tour of readings around the UK later in the year] Where are you most excited to go?

CB: Upstairs [at Faber & Faber] on the 13th of April.

EB: That’s the one for the stiff drink beforehand.

Is there going to be a tour bus?

EB: There’s going to be a pink bus with flowers.

RC: I really hope so.

Do any of you have an overarching theme in your collections?

CB: [to other poets] Were you guys seeing it as a collection or as a Greatest Hits? I mean I fartly –- I fartly? I also partly… [the table laughs]

That’s going in the interview.

CB: I partly had been writing lots of long things, so for me it was choosing shorter things because I couldn’t use a lot of the longer pieces, as it would have taken up a quarter of the pamphlet. But I definitely wasn’t aiming for a particular, singular sort of thing apart from the totality.

SB-W: Yeah I had a similar thing. Especially thinking about placement. I’m really interested in the pamphlet form, so I dwelled a lot on the order. I was probably quite annoying I think.

EB: [to Sam] Have you changed your order?

SB-W: Yes.

EB: I found that challenging.

What do you look for in the order? Do you look for themes that follow on from one another?

EB: I used it as a useful exercise to gather a group of poems that I thought would sit together, that I liked.

RC: I didn’t think there was an overarching theme until I re-read the submission when I got the email saying that it was going to go forward and I realised that actually, despite my best efforts, there probably is an overarching theme, which I hadn’t really twigged before. I mean, like Sam, I sort of thought quite hard about the order of things and sought to follow an emotional narrative, or tried to. But it’s weird looking back at them, it changes your perception of them, knowing that they’re going to be out in the world.

Interview by Rachel Chanter and Thea Hawlin


Faber New Poets April 2016 TOURFaber New Poets pamphlets #13, #14, #15 and #16 will be published 7 April 2016.

Elaine Beckett grew up in Kent, and studied music, film, and architecture in London. She has mainly worked as a university lecturer. In 2008 she moved to Dorset where by chance she joined a poetry group led by Annie Freud. Her poems have been longlisted for The Bridport Prize, and in 2012 she won the Bridport’s Dorset Award. Her poems have been published in Templar’s Skein anthology, South Bank Poetry, and the Bloodaxe Raving Beauties anthology, Hallelujah For Fifty-Foot Women. She currently studies with Greta Stoddart via The Poetry School.

Crispin Best lives in London and at www.crispinbest.com. He edits For Every Year, an online project aiming to collect a piece of art or writing in honour of every year since 1400. His writing has appeared in The Best British Poetry 2015 (Salt), the Quietus, Dazed & Confused, Poems in Which, and clinic, among other places. He has performed his poetry to audiences in New York, Chicago, Berlin, Melbourne, Edinburgh, and at the
Serpentine Gallery in London.

Sam Buchan-Watts was born in London in 1989. He studied English Literature at Goldsmiths and Creative Writing at UEA. He is a co-editor of the poetry anthology series, clinic. His poems have appeared in Poetry London and Salt’s Best British Poetry series, and his articles in PN Review, i-D and elsewhere.

Rachel Curzon was born in Leeds in 1978. She studied English at Oxford, and now teaches in a Hampshire school. In 2007, she received an Eric Gregory award. Her poems have appeared in The Rialto, Poetry London and The Bridport Anthology.

What I’m Reading – Thomas Morris

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Dogtooth d. Giorgos Lanthimos / 2009

We asked The Stinging Fly editor and short story writer Thomas Morris about the things he’s reading, watching and listening to right now.

Reading

  • Dorthe Nors’s Karate Chop (some of the best stories I’ve read in years).
  • Ottessa Mossfegh’s short stories. They’re so good, and you can read lot of them on the Paris Review website.
  • Sam Coll’s The Abode of Fancy (it’s being published next spring by Lilliput Press in Dublin and it is just brilliant, something else entirely).

Watching

  • Dogtooth – It’s just so well-crafted and relentlessly intense.

Listening 

  • Joanna Newsom’s Divers. She’s just exceptional.

Read our full interview with Morris about his debut short story collection here.

We Don’t Know What We’re Doing

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Editor of The Stinging Fly, one of Ireland’s top literary magazines, Thomas Morris is no stranger to reading and writing short fiction. In the final countdown to the deadline for our short story competition we spoke to the writer and editor about his debut collection We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, heritage, habits and the art of disguise.

Many interviewers have made much of your identity as a Welsh writer living in Ireland – do you think this is problematic? How do you identify yourself? How should we identify ourselves? If we should at all…

There aren’t many Welsh people living in Ireland – and a lot of people here in Dublin wouldn’t be able to name a contemporary Welsh writer – so I guess I’m something of a novelty in that respect. In some ways, it does feel as if I’ve gotten slightly caught between two poles, but it’s not really problematic; it just makes for a lot of parentheses in the opening paragraph of reviews (‘Welsh born, but living in Dublin for 10 years…’)

At the moment, the book seems to be better known in Ireland than in Wales. But I think that’s inevitable: there are so few Welsh outlets for cultural criticism, Wales is a lot much smaller in terms of media infrastructure, and there doesn’t seem to be the same kind of conversation around books. As for further afield, I sometimes wonder in what ways things would be different were I Irish: there’s a worldwide appetite for all-things-Ireland that doesn’t quite exist for all-things-Wales. A current example: Gareth Thomas, the former Welsh international rugby player and first openly gay international player at that. Micky Rourke was signed up to play Thomas in a film based on his life – they developed the script together for a long time – but in the end the studio said they’d prefer a fictional account instead, one where Gareth Thomas was actually an Irishman named Mick ‘The Blade’ Collins. ‘It’ll do better in the States’, was apparently the reasoning. And if that was the case, it’s hard to fault the logic: a film about an Irishman will likely do better than a film about a Welshman. (Not to mention the fact that fiction can probably provide a more satisfying narrative arc etc etc.)

But anyway, how do I identify myself? I’m Welsh first; I live in Ireland second; and I grudgingly accept that I’m British. But I’m embarrassed by the British thing. I’m embarrassed by the government, the monarchy, the class system, the empire, the arrogance, the cultural and historical amnesia, the fact that so many cities are now essentially just indoor shopping centres. But I love the BBC, the idea of the NHS, and anything made by Armando Iannucci.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to do with all the embarrassment. It seems a bit rich to just identify with all the good parts, while neglecting the fact that I had the privilege of growing up in a UK that gained its wealth and status by being so fucking awful to millions of people – home and abroad. This all sounds ranty and naively liberal in a way that I would have taken the piss out of if I’d read it a few years back, but every time I see George Osborne’s smug little privileged face I am drawn to the idea of violence.

Do you go back to Wales often?

My idea of a year is still shaped by school years: I come back to Wales for the half-term holidays and always for a few weeks in the summer. I’ve just taken a month off The Stinging Fly to come back to Wales to decompress a bit. I turn 30 very soon, so I’m entering a period of Sober Reflection. God help us all.

But still, it’s important that I come back as much as I can. I still have family and friends here, who I miss a lot, and there are certain parts of myself that don’t get the same kind of outing in Dublin.

You’ve said before that you think you had very ‘romantic’ notions of Ireland – did Irish writers have a part in that?

No, the romantic notions were shaped entirely by a few Sunday episodes of Ballykissangel. When I moved to Dublin, I knew nothing about Irish writers or its literary heritage. I’d read a few stories from Dubliners, but I didn’t really understand them. Once I got to university, though, the legacy of Irish writing became apparent to me, but still I wasn’t sure if it was just a propaganda mission by the Irish universities – in the same way that Sky TV keeps saying the Premier League is the best football league in the world. But no, it turns out that Irish writers are pretty important after all. From a purely selfish point of view, living in Dublin really gave me the kick to write. Had I had been living in Wales in my twenties, I don’t think I’d have thought that writing was something I could conceivably do.

I’ve heard you love Dylan Thomas’s short stories despite the fact they’re rarely talked about – which ones?

His story collection Portrait of the Artist as A Young Dog is really wonderful. The stories seem to me quite autobiographical, and there’s something of Frank O’Connor in a lot of them: the gentle humour and the grave sadness side-by-side. I find Dylan Thomas’s poetry difficult – almost too obscure, perhaps too poetic at times – whereas his stories are more direct but imbued with the kind of beautiful observations that only a poet could conjure. The opening of a ‘Visit to Grandpa’s’, for example:

It was the first time I had stayed in grandpa’s house. The floorboards had squeaked like mice as I climbed into bed, and the mice between the walls had creaked like wood as though another visitor was walking on them. 

When I’m writing a story, I often turn to other books to solve the problems in my own work. When I began writing ‘all the boys’, a story about a Welsh stag weekend in Dublin, I struggled with the pacing and the handling of so many characters. Then I re-read Dylan Thomas’s ‘Extraordinary Little Cough’, a story about a group of boys hanging out on the beach, and everything clicked. I love the breathlessness of the prose in Dylan’s story, the ways the sentences are almost panting as they try to keep up with the action.

But yes, amid all the celebrations for Dylan’s 100th birthday last year, his stories did seem a little overlooked. But Wales has a habit of not shouting loud enough about its prose writers. Leslie Norris wrote beautiful short stories; Caradoc Evans was a serious hellraiser, but they’re writers who are rarely talked about except for anniversaries. I’m not sure how to go about it, but I’d love to set up a short story competition in Leslie Norris’s name, like the way there’s a Rhys Davies Award. Again, the Irish excel at this kind of thing – The Frank O’Connor Award, the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen Award, The Sean O’Faolain Award, and most recently The Colm Toibin Award etc.

You’ve said the key to a good short story is intensity – what kind of intensity do you strive for in your own work?

Emotional honesty; I don’t want to fudge things.

You switch wonderfully between writing as a man and writing as a woman, which perspective do you enjoy writing from more? Do you find the experience very different for each or do you even think about it?

It’s very nice for you to say that, but to be honest, I don’t really think differently when writing male or female characters.

I’ve always been confused by the expression ‘strong female characters’ – like, do you want these women to be weightlifters? Or do people mean ’emotionally strong’? Or just well-rendered and well rounded? I think the temptation for many men is to write women who are emotionally strong, or rather, in the end, women who are just ‘long-suffering of men’ – and this all as a strategy of pre-empting and avoiding criticism for writing ‘weak’ female characters. But that kind of mentality can lead to two-dimensional characters, passive women who just shake their head and say with an exasperated sigh and knowing wink, ‘Men, eh?’

When I’m drafting a story, a character can go from being a man to being a woman in a matter of minutes. I don’t really do physical description of people – I’m terrible at it – so I try and compensate with psychological detail or a lot of behaviour. This seems to have worked so far, and I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from that: are readers lying to me? Or are men and women really not all that different? Or is that I’ve yet to write about the key differences?

On a technical level, I wonder what difference it makes when you’re writing in first or third person, for example. I’ve read stories by women where they’re writing first person male, and stories by men where they’re writing first person female, and it seems as if the writer is insecure or worries the reader will be confused, and the writing gets sticky with stupid exposition and self-declarative statements: ‘I’m an honest man…’ ‘I wasn’t like other women’.

If you could get any aspiring writers to read a single short story what would you pick? Why?

‘Good Country People’ by Flannery O’Connor: it’s brilliant.

Do you have any writing ‘ticks’ – specific words or sentence structures – that you find yourself using again and again?

Absolutely, but I’m not ready to admit them in public.

Do you think habit is a friend or foe for a writer?

I think routine is important, I’m less sure about habit. Do you mean habits in the writing itself?

If someone is struggling to find a good writing routine or are concerned about the nature of their own process, I would really recommend reading Daily Routines. So many writers were lunatics in the way they settled down to work, but the routine was everything.

Writing the book, my own routines were fairly terrible. I wrote late into the night, gorging on sweet tea and Pringles and M&Ms to keep awake. But staying up into the early seemed to be the only way I could key into the kind of emotional intensity I was hoping to reach. You only need to walk the city at 2am to see that the id is often freer at night.

You’re very good and picking up on the minute details of relationships and human interactions – does a lot of this come from observation? Do you find you source a lot from life – do you see a person and create a character around them – or are they more firmly abstract?

There’s a lot of observation, yes. But perhaps the word ‘observation’ is misleading, a little too deliberate-sounding. In my early twenties I did go round with a notebook, writing things down on trains and buses – but I reckon the best bits are the things you don’t need to write down, the things that just survive. If I remember something – a snatch of speech, an image, an anecdote – months after hearing it, then it’s hopefully a strong enough to linger in a reader’s memory. But when I’m writing a story – and I’m fully invested in it – the right things seem to rise to the surface. The exception is stuff from childhood. My memory is getting worse each year, so I’m grateful for a phase I went through ten years ago when I wrote out pages and pages of childhood memories. Reading those pages now acts as a sharp prompt. I likewise won’t let my mother throw out any of my old toys or clothes: they’re some of the few remaining threads that allow me to vividly connect with my childhood. That probably sounds awfully sentimental.

As for sourcing material, I have a disclaimer at the start of the book: ‘These stories are works of fiction. Any resemblance to life is purely inevitable’. It’s half-joking, but I think it’s half serious, too. Where the hell are you meant to find things that are true if not from life itself? When I was at university I published stories in the college magazine under the pseudonym Harry Block. I stole the name from the lead character in Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry. His character is a bit of a callous bastard, stealing everything from everyone’s lives for his fiction and then not even remembering which bits he made up and which bits are real. (‘Me and Janet’ he says longingly about an ex at one point, only to be corrected: ‘Jane. Janet is the character in the book.’) I don’t identify with the callous thievery, but there’s certainly an autobiographical impulse in my stories. (He says loftily, having only published only one book.) As George Saunders often says: fiction is lying when everything knows you’re lying. It sometimes takes a bit of truth to convince people of the broader deceit.

Drafting is a crucial part of the writing process for any writer – what does the role of re-writing mean for you?

It’s about solidifying intention. It can take me three or four drafts to work out what the story is about. But once I find out what it is about (and it’s often different to what I set out with) then it’s a matter of sharpening everything in service of that intention. I love rewriting: it’s the only time I feel like I’m doing anything good. I think of each draft as an experiment. I’ll literally re-save the document to something like ‘Goat story – taken on as experiment 3’. Having the previous draft there, on the computer, gives me license to fuck about on the next one. I know I can always go back.

In a past interview you mentioned how you wanted each tale to have a rare emotional core of sorts – so each story has a drop of reality, or came from a place of real emotion in your life. Do you find blurring the lines an easy process or one that takes work? (Are there times you’re self conscious of ‘true’ content and have to work hard to disguise it or do you like to tease those details out?)

That’s a good question. In the opening story, ‘Bolt’, the narrator escapes to the bathroom to take some time out, then he goes to take a piss and remembers he doesn’t actually need a piss: he’s just there to have some peace. A friend of mine said he liked that moment, though he felt it was clearly taken directly from real life. It made me pause for a bit. I wondered if a detail could be ‘too real’. And it is something I think about a lot: is this or that detail too idiosyncratic? I have a few friends to whom I show early drafts, and a big part of the drafting process is wheedling out the bits that take the reader out of the reading experience. So I use statistical analysis: if one friend things something isn’t quite working, it’s worth considering but it might stay in; if three people point their finger to the same thing, I know it needs tinkering or removing. Most often, though, people point out the things you always suspected yourself. Once you think that something is get-away-with-able, it never actually is.

But the ‘disguising’ you mention is a big part of the fun. I like to take a detail from life, then try to shape a story around it. This is especially true when it comes to stories driven by the details of strong emotional impulses. The story ‘Fugue’ came from the horror of being away from home for a long time and then returning and feeling distinctly alien.

Have you had much input into the production of the book as a finished product? What did you make of the cover art? Was it what you were expecting or envisioning for the book – did you even have an expectations or visions for it at all?

I love the cover. Luke Bird at Faber did such a wonderful job: it was his idea from premise to execution. I did chip in with the occasional suggestion (I really wanted the horse on there, just for the fun of it) but the cover is very much a response to Luke and Faber’s feeling that the book is all about people. It sounds funny to say now, but I hadn’t really thought about the collection this way. Writing the stories, I was driven by emotional truth and formal concerns and certain images I wanted to follow.

As for my expectations – I just wanted something with a bit of life in it, something which told the reader, ‘Don’t worry, this isn’t another bloody collection of quiet, respectable literary fiction’. But at the same time, I really didn’t want a cover that looked as if was designed to be sold solely in Urban Outfitters or HMV. In my humble opinion, Faber got the balance perfectly right.

Where next? You’ve spoken about a novella you once wrote before – do you think that might resurface any time soon? Are you interested in exploring longer forms?

I haven’t written in a while, partly intentional, partly not, but I’m excited and daunted to get back to it. I’m going to write a novel. Or rather: I’m going to write something that we can hopefully call a novel. But there’s so much in novels that I can’t stand: so much fat and so much stuff that has to be there because it’s a novel. I can’t be doing with that, so I’m going to try and find a way around the problem. I loved Jenny Offil’s approach in The Dept. Of Speculation, and reading that book really made me reconsider what you need and what you really don’t need in a work of fiction.

I also have an idea for another anthology I’d like to edit, but it could take a few years to get going.

But yes, the novella in question is dead and gone. I stole the best bits for the collection.

Do any of us know what we’re doing?

I’ve got no idea.

We Don’t Know What We’re Doing by Thomas Morris published by Faber & Faber is out now. 

By Thea Hawlin

Short Story Competition: A word from the Judges

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Elizabeth Bowen / Katherine Mansfield

With just a couple weeks left till the end of our annual Short Story Competition we spoke to the Judges to find out exactly what the short story means to them.  Today we spoke to award-winning novelist Susan Hill about writers, short stories and what to read to be inspired. 

What do you look for in a short story?

‘A little world, made cunningly.’

Which short story writers do you admire? 

In no order – Chekhov, Elizabeth Bowen, James Lasdun, Helen Simpson, Henry James, Katherine Mansfield… and many many more.

What possibilities does the form of short fiction present to a writer that the novel doesn’t offer? 

It doesn’t – it is just different.

How would you describe yourself as a reader? 

Omniverous – almost. I don’t read fantasy or sci-fi.

If you had to recommend one short story for contributors to read what would it be? 

I’m having 3 –

Katherine Mansfield, ‘The Doll’s House’.

James Lasdun ‘From the Minutes of the Honorary Secretary’.

Helen Simpson, ‘Burns Night’.

And about 1,000 more…

19.03.08 Picture shows Susan Hill (born February 5, 1942) is a British popular writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her novels have all been best sellers, and she remains best known for her ghost story The Woman in Black. Other notable novels have been I'm the King of the Castle and The Mist in the Mirror..Susan Hill's latest release is called The Battle for Gullywith. Picture Ben Graville
Photo: Ben Graville

Susan Hill has been a professional writer for over 50 years. Her books have won the Whitbread, and John Llewellyn Prizes, andthe W. Somerset Maugham Award and been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Her novels include Strange MeetingI’m the King of the Castle and A Kind Man, and she has also published autobiography and collections of short stories. Her ghost story, The Woman in Black, has been running in London’s West End since 1988.

 

 

 

Click here to submit your entry

An Interview with Calisi Press

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Olive harvesting - Photo courtesy of the Archive of the Associazione Culturale Lauretana (Loreto Aprutino PE)

In recent months Ferrante Fever has been catching. If you haven’t already heard of the anonymous Italian female author who’s achieved international acclaim, the entire finished series of her famed Neapolitan novels awaits you: go, read and remain awed. With the release of the final installment just days ago, the success of the Italian series has sparked a renewed interest in how and why translations come to the English market when they do. Why did it take so long for Ferrante to reach us? How was it that no one had translated her earlier? Are there other Ferrantes out there just waiting to be transformed for consumption abroad?

Fiction in translation has been on the rise for a while now, with an exciting new era of internationally sensitive publishers creating new connections around the world. Readers have never had so much choice when it comes to what to read. Among the small presses forging the way for a brighter future for translation is newcomer Calisi Press, a publishing house that specializes not only in Italian fiction but by fiction written by women, moving to combat both the neglect of women writers and writers in translation simultaneously. They’re a press that promise to provide an inevitable follow up for those who’ve finished Ferrante and have found themselves still unsated.

We sat down with the founder of Calisi Press, Franca Simpson, to talk about work, women and contemporary translation.

What inspired you to start Calisi Press

I had been a commercial translator for several years when I decided to try and realise my long-held ambition to be a literary translator before it was too late. Becoming a publisher was not part of the plan, it sort of happened along the way, when I found My Mother is a River (by Dontella Di Pietrantonio originally published in Italian as Mia Madre e un Fume) and was unable to get it published.

What is your opinion of the current market for translations in the UK?
There are just not enough books in translation in English-speaking markets, only a small percentage (3-5%, depending on your source). Ignoring good books from other countries and other cultures is like seeing the world in black and white rather than the glorious colours that it is.

So why should people read the books Calisi produce as opposed to another larger publisher? 

Calisi is very small but what it lacks in size I make up for in enthusiasm and passion. Most of all, I select stories that really speak to me, directly, viscerally even. I believe they are stories worth telling.

What, in your opinion, is the value of translation? 

I grew up reading fables and stories from all over the world, in a country where books in translation are simply called “books” – I don’t know the exact percentage but I would say that perhaps 30% or possibly even more of books in Italy are translations. It opens up your eyes to the rest of the world, and it makes you aware that, no matter how different we might be on the outside, we all share fundamental, human values.

When founding the press why did you decide to focus only on female writers? 

It was a coincidence in part. There was a session at the International Translation Day at the British Library last year on (lack of) women in translation which I found eye-opening. The book I was interested in translating had been written by a woman, it made sense to take that direction.

What do you think about the recent popularity of the works of Elena Ferrante in the UK? 

I am not surprised. She is a brilliant writer and taps on themes that are, again, universal. The Neapolitan background might add some local flavor but it is the story that involves and captures you, not the setting.

In the wake of the Neapolitan Novels do you think there’s now a high demand for Italian fiction, perhaps specifically by women?

I think there is always demand for good books. Besides, we are becoming aware that we need to hear more female voices in publishing. And Italy remains a country that holds enduring fascination for English-speaking people.

Are there any particular Italian female authors you feel have been neglected by translators? 

There are so many excellent Italian female writers that nobody I know has ever heard of – I wouldn’t know where to begin!

My mother is a river_Cover_sept2015

My Mother is a River translated by Franca Simpson is available for pre-order now and will be released by Calisi Press on 4th November 2015.

Words by Thea Hawlin

An Interview with David Henry Hwang

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David Henry Hwang at the Virginia Theatre in New York during the run of his revisal of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song in March, 2003. Photo from The Lia Chang Theater Portfolio at the Library of Congress/AAPI Collection

The London Magazine interviews David H. Hwang, as his Obie Award-winning Pulitzer prize finalist play Yellow Face comes to Finsbury’s new ‘Park Theatre’, showing now until the 16th June 2013.

How did you get into playwriting? Was that something you always wanted to do?

I did not grow up with any sort of theatrical background, nor did I ever expect to become a playwright. During my freshman year of college, I saw some professional productions in San Francisco, and thought, “Maybe I can do that.” I then started writing plays in my spare time, and found a professor who was willing to take a look at them. He told me they were really bad – which they were! – and proceeded to arrange a course of study for me where I read and saw as many plays as I could for the next few years. In my senior year, I wrote a play called FOB to be performed in my dormitory. Through a variety of very fortuitous circumstances, FOB opened a year later Off-Broadway at the Public Theater, produced by the legendary impressario Joseph Papp.

What impact did the success of M.Butterfly have on your writing?

I was 30 years old when M BUTTERFLY became an international hit and, while I was obviously very fortunate to have enjoyed that kind of success, it also had its down side. For several years afterwards, I felt burdened by the weight of expectations, and that sort of pressure made it difficult for me to write. Eventually, however, my next production, FACE VALUE, was such a massive failure, closing in previews on Broadway, that it burst the bubble of expectation, and I could return to simply being a writer again.

What was the inspiration behind Yellow Face?

I was one of the Asian American theatre people who protested the casting of Jonathan Pryce as the Eurasian pimp in the musical MISS SAIGON when it came to Broadway, as an example of “Yellow Face” casting.. The intensity, vehemence, and anger I felt, on both sides of that issue, left me shaken for many years afterwards. So I wrote FACE VALUE, a comedy of mistaken racial identity, to explore the question, “What does it really mean to ‘play’ another race?” As noted above, FACE VALUE became an infamous flop, but the idea of doing a comedy of mistaken racial identity stayed with me for the next fifteen years or so. Eventually, I found another way to realize this notion with YELLOW FACE.

To what extent is the character of Hwang a representation of yourself?

I think autobiographical characters are always difficult. Even in a great work like THE GLASS MENAGERIE, for instance, one could argue that Tom is the least well-developed character. Paradoxically, once I named DHH after myself, I felt free to make him just a character, and liberated from needing to be strictly factual. So I suppose YELLOW FACE is a sort of mockumentary, or unreliable memoir.

How much of Yellow Face is factual?

Part of the fun of the play, I believe, is not knowing what is true and what is invented, so I’m going to duck that question.

Are you working on anything new at the moment? If so, can you give us a taster of what to expect?

My next show is called KUNG FU, based on the life of martial arts icon Bruce Lee, and will open in New York at Signature Theatre, which is doing a season of my work, in early 2014.

 

For more information and to purchase tickets to see Yellow Face visit http://parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/yellow-face

By Alexandra Maher