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a writer's life Greece Marketing Peter Kenny The Writer Ltd. Publishing Stained glass Telltale Press Writing

Slow progress and wide heart lead

Seven items from the imaginary news desk at Kenny Towers.

  1. A nice, not to mention speedy, review of TRUTHS A Telltale Press Anthology in London Grip. If you’d like to buy a copy, simply get in touch with me through this site. In other poetry news, I have a poem called Commuted on the Amaryllis site,  and another War Diary in 1/72 scale accepted by Arachne Press anthology provisionally called An Outbreak of Peace.
  2. And talking of self-puffery, here’s a conversation I had with the multi-talented Louise Tondeur about marketing.
  3. Two books of poetry are currently lighting up my life. Eleni Vakalo, Before Lyricism, translated by Karen Emmerich, which drips with timeless vitality and sheer Greekness which I love. One day I must post more about the riches of Greek poetry since Cavafy.  And Janet Sutherland‘s Bone Monkey, which was recommended to me by my poet pal Charlotte — I have the sense in reading Janet’s poems that she sees the world a bit like I do, except she has words for what I’ve not been able to say, so for me her poems are revelatory. I am just about to order her other two books now. Some writers make you fall in love with reading all over again, and Vakalo and Sutherland are two of those.
  4. I think I have started a new play, but I don’t want to hex myself by saying more. It seems to want to be another black comedy.
  5. I have lost count of the number of agents I’ve approached with my children’s book. Not a glimmer so far, and the majority are so swamped they simply don’t reply. As the book has been read to actual schoolchildren who have lapped it up, clearly lateral thinking and persistence must now be deployed (after a brief spell of shaking my fist at the indifferent gods of publishing).
  6. In the other part of my double life as a creative, I found out a concept I’d done with my pals in the Paris agency, Life Animal Health, about the animal disease rinderpest, has won a prize in the French Empreintes awards.
  7. I have been learning how to make stained glass windows. My class on a short hiatus before restarting. The design part I find fairly easy, but the practical stuff I find a bit of a ‘pane’. Cutting different thicknesses and types of  lead (I love the name of one – ‘wide heart lead’), cutting glass, sometimes overlaying two lots of glass one on the other, grinding glass, soldering (I’d never done this before), and generally getting my finicky hands dirty, have all challenged me. I love it though. My design was quite complicated, so despite working on it for weeks every Friday morning, it is still not finished. The tutor, Ben Conti, a very patient and skilled man and has not let me compromise my vision. My fellow students all lovely. I’m planning a bench at home.

Below… A workbench snap a few weeks ago. Ben seems to think it will be done one day, but stained glass is, for me, a work of glacial progress…. But once the mammoths have thawed out, it could look nice all buffed up and completed.

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Categories
Poetry social media Writing

‘Oumuamua and identity

Artist's_impression_of_ʻOumuamua

‘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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Categories
Children's fiction Fiction Prose Writing

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

 

Categories
Poetry Writing

Is John Keats a natural poet?

‘If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.’ John Keats, Hampstead Feb 27th 1818, Letter to John Taylor.

Keats wrote this ‘axiom’ in a letter to his friend John Taylor when he was 22. Are we to read this as a notion of genius — that great artists simply and effortlessly derive their work from the muses, while the rest of us lumpen, non-geniuses labour? Of course by the age of 22 Keats had already published and written sublime and lasting work. But read through his poetry and you can see the craft evolve at an extraordinary rate — accelerated by his deep study of Shakespeare.

Most texts, especially poetry, are worked at long and hard. Many writers, but I would suggest especially poets because of the nature of the form, will be familiar with the sensation of a poem arriving fully realised. The first poem I had printed (in Other Poetry, back in the early eighties) was written this way. I remember sitting down to write, after a visit to Kenilworth Castle,  and an effortless eight-line poem about the Castle simply popping out. It was a weird feeling.  Since then a few of my poems have emerged this way and when it happens, you must avoid noticing that it is happening, just go with the flow.

Keats’s Ode To Autumn, was published in 1820. While the first page of the MS here has crossings-out (I selected this image from Google because it seemed quite worked on) even this MS demonstrates that the poem arrived almost fully formed, and it was composed in one day — 19th September 1819. For one of the most famous poems in the English language, that’s not bad going. Here’s the first page of the MS version.

toautumn1

It is a moot point if anyone else can tell that a something written in one fell swoop or not, and if this matters?

T.E. Eliot’s The Waste Land, took years to write, and there is MS with not only Eliot’s workings but Ezra Pound, the il miglior fabbro (the better maker) of the poem’s dedication. Between them, they shrunk the poem by almost half with their edits and revisions. Here is the start of the poem as we know it, but notice the pagination, the first page of the poem in MS had been completely cut, with a light pencil line, by Eliot himself.

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Naturally the methods of Keats and Eliot are entirely different. Modernism, as expressed in The Waste Land, is in part a literary collage, a piecing together to make something new. This is time consuming. The Romantic idea of genius, and a spirit suddenly possessing one is persistent.  It is a single-minded outpouring, rather than an assemblage. You may have read lots, but your poem must pour out of you in an inspired torrent.

Keats was an extraordinary person. If we were all to wait for poetry to emerge like leaves from a tree, poems would be few and far between. But perhaps there is a case to be argued that a Romantic poem being tinkered with endlessly somehow kills it. Wordsworth’s endless revisions of his own work may be an example of this.

Today, traces of Romantic thinking still exist in the caricatured expectations culture has for the way artists are supposed to behave. The image of the otherworldly poet inspired by a muse is a hard one to shake off.

Categories
A Glass of Nothing a writer's life Brighton Blonde Productions Painters, Poetry Theatre Writing

A mixed bag

I have been working hard on my children’s story The Second Kind of Darkness in the last two months. The end is in sight. Putting the story aside for a few years has really helped. Time is a great editor.

I’ve also been filling in gaps in my reading of good children’s books, including Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman, and a book that is going down brilliantly with under 11s at the moment, Wonder by R.J. Palacio. I even went as far back as Peter and Wendy, by J.M.Barrie, which I found to be fresher than I expected, and genuinely strange in parts.

Having run earlier drafts of my story past schoolchildren in schools, I have two teacher friends, specialists in the age group I am writing for and in English, lined up to read it, not to mention my wife, who is a headteacher. Bracing myself for feedback soon

***

Dates have now firmed up for my play A Glass of Nothing which will have a preview in the Surgeon’s Hall Theatre 2 in Edinburgh on 5th August, and then a short run Monday-Thursday 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th of the following week. As before, it will be a Brighton Blonde Productions performance, and star Beth Symons in the central role.

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Two deaths in the last few weeks. One in the family, which I won’t write about here, the other of Andy Wilson, a former art director of mine.

I flew down to the funeral in Cornwall, with two other fellow advertising writers Pat and Barney who knew him well too. You get to know your partner inside out when you are working in a creative team, although Andy and I were partners only for about a year and a half, I knew him as a truly gentle soul, who was one of the most original and creative people I have ever met in any walk of life. Sadly his last few years were blighted by demons of addiction. This, as Andy’s death serves to remind me yet again, is a terrible illness that people pretend is a flaw of character.

One memory. When Andy and I were working late, Andy told me out of the blue that to make a party a success (I was thinking of having a party that weekend) I had to get a bucket. He emptied one of the metal bins under the desk, and laughed hollowly into it in a crazy Jack Nicholson style. He invited me to follow suit, and we passed the bucket back and forth until we were crying with laughter at nothing.

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I once met the Nobel Prize winning Derek Walcott,  who died on 17th March. I admired him as a poet greatly, as I am especially interested in poets from islands (in his case St. Lucia).

With a group of other young poets, I attended a seminar with him back in the 80s in the South Bank.  I found myself standing next to him, and when we were all settling in and in confusion about chairs, I made some joke about sitting on his lap. He looked at me very stonily, clearly deciding I was an idiot from that moment. We were all asked to chuck a poem into the middle. And Derek picked one out at random. The whole session was taken up with his close reading and commenting on this first poem, leaving me at least feeling a bit short changed. At least I got him to sign my copy of The Fortunate Traveller.

***

Got around to reading Jacob Polley’s Jackself eventually. I think it is a worthy winner of the T.S.Eliot award this year. The poems feel very solid and realised, there is a meaty, chewable quality about the language. I want to reread it already. There is an excellent review here from the guardian.

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Been haunting the National Gallery in London lately. This picture by Joseph Wright of Derby , which I had never looked at before, has begun to obsess me. It is An experiment on a bird in an Air Pump, a picture which becomes stranger the more I look at it. A white cockatoo, presumably the family pet judging by the cage in the corner, is being suffocated to demonstrate the nature of a vacuum. The two girls are naturally appalled, while the scientist with his wild hair and red clothes looks out at us as if to ask us if the air should be allowed back in to revive the poor creature.

An_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_an_Air_Pump_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby,_1768

 

Categories
a writer's life Autobiographical Working Writing

Omega day

The-Omega-Man-1971

Long ago I decided that the last day of the year should be treated with the sort of extreme caution owed to a snake in a sack.

And at this time of year I often think about The Omega Man (1971) a film starring Charlton Heston and based on the enjoyable novel I am Legend by Richard Matheson (as was the 2007 Will Smith remake I am Legend). The last man alive is not alone, and has to contend with the undead.

In my case, left alone to brood, the zombies of self-recrimination can lumber out of the dark at this time of year. Give them permission and I can hear them muttering through cracks in the windows about how my objectives for 2015 were not all fulfilled. Not to mention the persistently mystifying absence of a J.K. Rowling level of success.

The only thing to do is to seize my imaginary infrared light rifle and fight all these undead miseries off. The bloodless clumping ‘should-have-dones’ do have a purpose, however. They help me refine my plans for next year, and inspire me to keep trying. But as soon as they get too negative, they have to be culled.

So join me in slaughtering a few zombies. It can be quite therapeutic. Once I thin them out a bit I  can notice my actual achievements. Nothing extraordinary, but a  year perhaps that lays the foundations for a stronger one next year. My blessings are many. My personal life is fantastic, my business is going strong, I continue to find joy in reading literature and the friends I make through it, my own poems are finding new audiences, and I have a play in the offing. Everything is great apart from a few pesky zombies.

Tomorrow is New Year’s Day. An opportunity for a fresh start that’s literally built into our calendars. I’m looking forward to it already. I hope you are too. Cheers, and I wish you a zombie-free new year.

Categories
Education Writing

On floweriness

les_fleurs_du_mal_orpiment
Les Fleurs du Mal

My wife pointed me to a piece in The Guardian about the UK’s National Curriculum and the tendency for primary school teachers to steer children’s creative writing towards “too elaborate, flowery and over-complex” language to meet assessment criteria. An issue raised by a large group of children’s book writers including at least two Carnegie Medal winners.

I have worked with children in schools recently, talking about poetry and advertising with ‘more able writers’ at Downs Junior. I was really impressed by the teaching there, and the vibrant word choices some of the children were able to call upon, and how they were taught to reach for interesting words.

I was at my godson’s school, where I was asked by his Dad to pop in one day to be with him while we worked on his literacy in an after school club, that I experienced what the childrens’ authors were talking about.  As I sat with him, the lad had produced what I thought to be a crisp and pacy paragraph. It was found wanting by the teacher, however, as it was not sufficiently larded with adverbs and adjectives. Precisely the kind of flowery language the children’s authors are talking about.

Of course children’s vocabulary must be increased, but this can be done in a way that does not diminish the import of the sentence as a whole. Despite my poetic shenanigans I have a workmanlike approach to language. I believe its primary function is to communicate, rather than prove how clever the speaker or writer is. To communicate well you have to be entertaining and hold people’s attention and get to the point from time to time, rather than ambling endlessly, lengthily, ponderously about in the cul de sacs of floor-waxed, saw-dusted, labyrinthine – That IS a good word Peter. Thanks Miss! – educational dogma.

Luckily, nobody owns the English language. What is considered good writing is culturally assigned, and the opinions of these authors may come to seem outmoded. In my day job as a copywriter, for example, I have had to reassure a two or three French clients that I was not underselling their products because I had use fewer adjectives than my French counterparts would have used. They expected a floweriness that most English readers would find insincere and over the top. When you are selling something too hard, the customer begins to smell a rat.

The Guardian article quotes Cecilia Busby (who writes children’s fantasy as C.J.Busby).

The way writing is taught in primary schools, she said, is the opposite of how it is taught in MAs in creative writing, “where you’re taught to strip out the adverbs, remove all adjectives, and write in a simple, direct way”.

I think that just because this is how it is taught for MA courses doesn’t make that automatically right either. It feeds into the suspicion that there is a generation of writers who have been taught the “correct” way of writing. Interestingly, their way of writing may be at odds to the generation of readers spawned under current teaching methods. Now that IS interesting.

Categories
Criticism Novels Writing

Visiting the Brontës

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On this table Wuthering Heights and Jayne Eyre were written.

The importance of the author’s intentions in reading a novel or poem has been a hotly-argued subject. What became known as ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ (after a essay by Monroe Beardsley and W.K. Wimsatt) suggested that the author’s thinking about their own work was irrelevant. Instead a novel, for example, should stand on its own two feet and be judged without reference to what the author thought the work was all about. Pro-Intentionalists argue that we should include everything we know about the author’s intentions for their novel as well as try to understand the historical context in which the work arose.

I always thought they were both right. That, naturally, a work should be able to stand on its own and it is interesting to interpret a work free from prescriptive ideas about that the book is ‘about’. While cocking a snook at information about the writer’s intentions, and the context they wrote in, seems plain silly.

Visiting the Brontë parsonage at Hawarth on a sunny February afternoon, dredged up these old debates in my head, and I found my feeling for the sisters’ work transformed. I am the first to admit that I am not a Brontë scholar, having only read Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, but was impressed by both but now I want to read them again, and more.

The parsonage is at the top of a hill and surrounded by a graveyard and (as you’d expect) looks across at the Church. The gravestones are oddly table-like plinths. A fact which the 1850 report into public health suggested prevented plants from growing on the gravestones, which was thought to slow the decomposition of the corpses. This same report found that the average lifespan in Haworth was 25.8 years – the health there was wretched, with problems caused by sewage problems. The Brontë family’s comparative longevity has been ascribed to the fact that they lived at the top of the hill, while the sewage, and whatever ghastly stuff seeps into the water table from diseased corpses drained downwards.

Behind the Parsonage is wild and open moorland. Walking around the museum and locality it was easy to picture three fiercely intelligent young women and their brother, brought up as devout Christians, living on the edge of empty wildness in a small place where early death was commonplace. This is the practical context of the sisters’ imagination, and understanding just a little bit more about it has inspired me to return to their books.

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Graves at Haworth.
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Behind the Parsonage.
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On the moors.
Categories
Art and illustration social media Writing

Hey! Hey! Hey!

1_doghelmetThis Gary Larson cartoon has haunted me for ages. I would want, however, my helmet to decode what human beings are actually saying. In fact, in my darkest moments, I wonder what the hell it is I am actually saying, especially when it comes to social media. Would someone sporting one of Larson’s buzzy electric radar helmets look at me, or their feeds and detect only Me! Me! Meeeee!

It’s one of my worst fears. But perhaps it is an occupational hazard when you are creative. For creative minds are laboratories where unpredictable explosions, magnesium flares, and weirdly fascinating lulls occur. For the creative person this can be completely absorbing of course, but to the outside world? Not so much.

So one of my resolutions is to remember the writer’s 101: it’s about the reader stupid.