‘Oumuamua and identity

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‘Oumuamua was a new word for me. It means scout or messenger in Hawaiian, and was given to the first object we’re certain to have come from beyond our own solar system.

Wikipedia says it is a reddish object around 230 by 35 meters. To me, vulgarian that I am, it looks like an interstellar poo. As I type, glancing at the ‘Oumaumua tracker, I see it is currently zooming away from Earth at 64.6 km/s per second. With the recent antics of humanity, who can blame it? But this weird object that has dropped in from nowhere has got me thinking.

The thought of 2018 is quite a challenging one. We are all people of our time. Whether we choose to bury our heads under the duvet whimpering till it’s over, or thunder into the streets in protest, we are all reacting in our different ways to what 2018 presents us with.

It brings to mind the Intentionality debate, an old argument in philosophy and literary criticism. It goes like this: how much should our knowledge of a writer’s intentions and historical context affect how we read their texts? Should we find out what the writer meant? Or, as the anti-intentionalists prefer, support the idea that a poem should stand on its own two feet without the backstory,  as if it emerged ex nihilo, from nothing, like ‘Oumuamua.

I’ve aways found this debate a bit tiresome. The answer, surely, is a bit of both. A poem should be able to be enjoyed as its own thing, independent of previous knowledge, as you would if you stumbled over it in a magazine from a poet new to you. It seems common sense to me, however, that learning something about the writer’s intentions can only enrich our enjoyment of the work, without necessarily dictating how we should read it.

When I was a student (in the days of vellum and quill pens) T.S. Eliot was held as an example of someone who wrote brilliantly while having a minimal presence in the work.  This idea was reflected in the title of Hugh Kenner’s early biography, ‘The Invisible Poet’.

While even today some art forms, such as street art, require the anonymity of its artists due to the borderline illegality of much of their work, in contemporary poetry the identity of the writer is often scrutinised. What has been written is judged through the lens of who has written it. This may be due to how established privileges have been challenged. It is no longer acceptable that people can be quietly rejected on grounds of their race, class, gender, sexuality and so on.

For the Intentionality debate, it seems case closed. The poet’s identity is very relevant in 2018. But I do have some qualms. Is there a danger that literature can turn into a beauty contest? A writer may be unnoticed because their identity is frankly a bit meh. What would bookish bank clerk T.S.Eliot’s instagram account look like?

To gain relevance some subtly emphasise their challenges. This might be ethnicity, gender, sexuality, physical ability, age and so on. Everyone needs an angle, of course, but it has reminded me (and this does me little credit) of the phrase ‘the hierarchy of suffering’, with authenticity being awarded to those who have had more challenges. As consumers of art we often expect this too. We don’t much want to hear rappers or rock stars bragging about coming from wealthy, well adjusted middle class backgrounds for example.

What might swing the pendulum back towards the art and not the artist? Is it that the very notion of identity itself is being reassembled? We live in a time where it is possible (although gruelling) for people to adjust the body they happened to be born with, and choose a gender more appropriate to who they are. The famous case of Rachel Dolezal, who was born white but  controversially chose to identify as black may be a forerunner of how people might seek to override the hand they were played by birth. Sexuality is now often seen (correctly in my view) as a spectrum rather than a binary choice. While the internet and social media have enabled people to experiment and be selective and playful in how they present themselves.

The idea that you are born with an identity that must be adhered to is melting away.  Once you can choose who you want to be, who knows? Maybe our lives will, Oscar Wilde-style, become our artworks.

Or perhaps, with fewer rigid differences between us, our art will be about the art rather than who has produced it.

Here it comes. Tumbling from nowhere, and full of mystery.

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Posted in Poetry, social media, Writing | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

A pre-Christmas ramble

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A side-street not taken in Vienna.

My double life requires me to switch from working in advertising agencies, back to picking up the threads of my creative life and vice versa. My most recent agency stint was with a lovely crew at DDB Remedy in London, which culminated in six days in Austria. The work was a bit full on, however, so all I could do was imagine the foresty, golden Klimts in nearby Viennese galleries I knew I had no time to see. One night I broke away for half an hour and walked randomly from the hotel, looking wistfully at the side streets not taken, but happy that I had at least a few minutes to  breathe the cold night air of Vienna and feel for a moment that I was inside a film.

One thing about doing agency work for a couple of months is that it gave me plenty of commuting time to read.  I can devour a short novel in a day or two, and I usually take some poetry with me to dip in when feeling the need. I read novels by, among others,  Ali Smith, Elizabeth Stroud, Richard Ford, Lloyd Jones and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and  poetry by Fernando Pessoa, J.O. Morgan, Adélia Prado, John McCullough and Tess Jolly.

I’ve noticed several agency creatives over the last few years using Instagram and ‘late-adopter’ that I am, I now use it too, documenting lunchtime strolls around the canals of Little Venice near Paddington, London, and a couple of snaps in Vienna.

Now, feeling a bit exhausted, I’m taking stock of my own creative work. Apart from two poetry readings, and some quickly scribbled drafts of poem ideas, I have left everything untouched since October. And not having much on the horizon feels odd and dangling. I have no play in production, no new play written, my children’s novel is waiting for another agent to look at it, with one rejection so far that took over four months to receive.

But poetry, my first love, remains true and I’m always tinkering at some poem or another. I met with some fellow poets on Monday in Lewes, to talk about a forthcoming poetry anthology from Telltale and to drink some beer. This is therapy for me. Chatting with friends Robin Houghton, Sarah Barnsley, Charlotte Gann and Stephen Bone, makes me feel the obsession that has dogged me since my teens is actually a perfectly reasonable response to the world. Writers can be as backbitey and competitive as anyone else, so when you find yourself among supportive colleagues the affirmation is priceless.

I am doing a course in making stained glass windows in the new year, something I’ve always had a hankering to try, despite not being very good with my hands. A poem I wrote in the 80s, The Window Maker was printed on some National Book Tokens. Apparently an impostor went into a northern bookshop raging because Book Tokens had stolen his poem, and he was in fact the real Peter Kenny and wasn’t happy about it. I often think about doppelgängers, because my life contains quite a few incidents like this. Having a twin brother is the worst nightmare I can imagine. But I digress… I love stained glass. I love the way light passes through it. I love the leading too, and how these thick lines allow something to be  assembled from fragments into a whole that plays with gorgeous light. What’s not to love? I already have designs in my head that are on the scale of Coventry Cathedral. I might have to reign in my expectations.

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Me, before the Santa beard went on

So to end this pre-Christmas ramble, I would just like to wish you a very Merry Christmas. I love this time of year enormously. Even looking at a Christmas tree can bring a tear to my eye. Luckily I got to be Santa this year at my wife’s village school. To play a part in the unfurling of Christmas was great fun, and I am always amazed by the intelligence of children. I was plunged into ontological debates about the reality of Father Christmas with three or four nippers, (trying not to feel affronted, for did I not refute their argument just by being there in front of them?) I came out of that quite well I thought.

Cheers! Have a peaceful one.

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Posted in a writer's life, Peter Kenny The Writer Ltd., Poetry, Travel, Working | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Weird to win

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I won the small Happenstance poetry competition about dreams, with a short poem called Formication. I don’t win competitions: fact. So it felt weird to be contacted by Helena Nelson at Happenstance, who publishes my pal Charlotte Gann among others, to be told I’d won a small competition. It’s made me have all these wild thoughts. If I could win a small competition, maybe I could one day win a bigger one.

What was extremely valuable to me was the feedback I got from J.O. Morgan in his blog post. To know someone has given your work enough attention to unpack the poem is everything a writer can ask. And when it is a poet of J.O. Morgan’s stature (he was one of the poets in last year’s TSE shortlist) then this made me even more chuffed.

I have written about two dozen shorter poems in a new style this year (two dozen is loads for me) and Formication is one of them. This thumbs-up for a new approach couldn’t have come at a better time. So here’s my wee poem. Formication, by the way, is the name for the feeling that insects are crawling over your skin.

Formication

The Dictionary for Dreamers says insects
are worries, at least in dreams. Therefore
all those ant poisons, the Raid and Nippon
under the sink, are there to calm me.

I loathe their collective mind, the purposeful lines
that trickle from my ears onto my pillow.
I hate how once you get one, you get more,
lofting bitten dreams in their leaf-cutter jaws.

Peter Kenny

Posted in Blowing my own trumpet, Poetry | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Poetry readings with Pighog and Telltale coming soon

I have two poetry readings in the pipeline in about a month’s time. In Brighton, and London. Here are the deets:

N.B. DATE CHANGE Wednesday October 25, 2017 7:30 pmThe Nightingale Room, Grand Central, 29-30 Surrey St, Brighton BN1 3PA Pighog poetry evening with Charlotte Gann, Peter Kenny and another guest TBA – Tickets on the door £5, £4 concessions, £3 for open mic participants.
Wednesday November 1, 2017 7.30 pmThe Poetry Cafe, 22 Betterton St, London WC2H 9BX  Telltale Press & Friends with Catherine Smith, Abigail Parry, Robin Houghton and Peter Kenny – FREE

I’ve fan-boyishly blogged on this blog about Charlotte Gann  who is an amazing poet, and I loved her book Noir.  We are reading at one of the Pighog events in Brighton on Oct 26th organised by Michaela Ridgway. The excellent Clare Best  was also due to read with us, but has had to pull out as the date of the reading had to change.

Then, the following week on November the first, there’s another Telltale & Friends reading. I’m keen to hear Abigail Parry, who has been a magnet for poetry prizes. Her highly-anticipated collection Jinx will be published by Bloodaxe next year. I’ll have another opportunity to hear the extremely accomplished and sometimes saucy Catherine Smith, as well as my pal Robin Houghton, who has a new pamphlet All the relevant gods, out from Cinnamon next year. There are a few more details about the Telltale reading on the Telltale Blog.

I like the flyer Robin put together for the Telltale Reading below. I am pleased I asked Innis McAllister to do a decent shot of me.  I think Robin looks like she has something really important to tell you. And what’s more, she has. But you’ll have to come along to hear it.

Telltale reading

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Posted in Blowing my own trumpet, Performance, Poetry, Readings | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Learning from children for ‘The Second Kind of Darkness’

So I am now in the ‘seeking representation’, (agent-beguiling) stage for my children’s story (age 9-12) called The Second Kind of Darkness (more about it here). After donning my imaginary pith helmet, I selected an agent to target. Mostly this was done on gut feel having seen her in the new Children’s Writers and Artists Yearbook and liking her profile on the website.

The reality is that there are bazillions of people out there writing children’s books, and only a tiny percentage will be taken. So statistically it seems unlikely that the book will emerge into the world.  I can’t stop, however, feeling weirdly and uncharacteristically positive. I think The Second Kind of Darkness is the best thing I have ever written.

As it is a children’s story, trying it out on children seemed a good idea.  Fortunately my wife is a headteacher, and one of our teacher friends Dawn Daniel has been an enormous help. Dawn has fixed it for me on several occasions to read early versions to children in class. (Note: arriving at this version took ten years of bloody-minded rewrites.)

To begin with I found this a bit nerve-racking too, and my already sky high respect for today’s teachers climbed even further.

I found children quickly let you know what’s working – and what isn’t. I was soon reminded how smart ten year old children are, being hawkish about detail and continuity. Some of their questions were surprisingly technical too, such as the use of  first and third person narrators. I came to see the children’s feedback as a kind of highly useful collaboration.

Just before the summer break Dawn read the opening chapters of this final version of the story to her class. I was delighted to hear the majority of the class were engaged and keen to read on. If children are loving it, at least that’s a hopeful start.

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Fibula, the six legged cat, colour sketch by my mother Margaret Hamlin

 

Posted in Children's fiction, Fiction, Prose, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

‘1,000 miles from sea’ in London Grip

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Me standing by withered crops in a drought-ridden Chad, Oct 2015, photo Matthew Hunt

My poem ‘1,000 miles from sea’ is published in London Grip this morning. I wrote this after visiting Chad, and seeing its struggle against drought and hunger. This poem is about how the conditions there brought my personal struggle with religion to a head.

I’m very grateful to Michael Bartholomew-Biggs the editor at  London Grip. As ever, it’s well worth a visit, and includes this storming response to Grenfell Tower by Naomi Foyle. A must-read poem.

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‘A Glass of Nothing’ still half full

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Beth finds somewhere quiet to apply makeup in the Surgeons’ Hall

So… Edinburgh. Blimey, it was an exhausting. In fact so exhausting, it has taken me two weeks to get around to writing about it… Edinburgh utterly dwarfs the  Brighton Festival, and the competition for bums (on seats) is ferocious. Nothing beats first hand experience of publicising and flying for your play, sticking together as a unit and delivering great performances to all kinds of audiences. Not to mention getting into the rhythm of gulping  post-performance beers and discovering late night Edinburgh delicacies such as the macaroni pie.

We learned lots. Next time we take on Edinburgh we’ll do things a little differently. My biggest learning was that putting a short run play on at the beginning of the festival is disadvantageous when seeking reviews. Luckily we had some corkers from the Brighton Festival, so we did okay. We had a couple of quiet nights but luckily this improved towards the end of the run. I’m always surprised at how different audiences can react so differently to the same play. Lots of laughter on one night, a serious absorption into the dark side of the play on the other. While one night, we were all surprised how everyone took against Kitty’s character to side with Beth.

We all made time to see some other shows of course, but I found it hard to see as many as I’d have liked. Shows had tiny audiences were often excellent too.  We took in several women comedians, and I particularly liked Jane Postlethwaite whose work was full of imagination as well as being extremely funny.

All in all, however, it was a hugely positive experience. We left Edinburgh proud of ourselves. And I was bursting with pride in how brilliantly everyone had done. Beth was magnificent, pouting and flirting with the audience.  Kitty and Matt were sensational, and delivered excellent performances every night.  And a big shout out to Amy who did our tech, and for my wife Lorraine who was our bedrock (plus stagehand). We all lived together in a top of a tenement flat in Leith too, like a thespian Walton family. Maybe next year? Hmm…. Now there’s an idea.

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Amy Freeman on tech

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Matt Colborne, Kitty Underhill, Beth Symons August 2017, Surgeons’ Hall, Edinburgh

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