Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday 28 January 2008

What Tao Lin, Woody Allen and I have in common

Most writers are very protective of their words. I know I used to be terrible. I would fight tooth and nail over every comma vehemently, passionately, as if some nasty editor was setting about my children with a pickaxe. Nowadays I'm nowhere near as difficult. Part of the reason for that is that, as one would hope after all these years, I'm getting the hang of this writing lark and not making so many glaring mistakes. But if someone were to come along and suggest a major rewrite then they'd have a fight on their hands. I spend a long time on editing and making sure that exactly the right words are used, the very best words for the job in hand.

I think I'd hate for a screenwriter to get a hold of anything of mine. That said, I'm a practical man so I'd sign on the dotted line (in blood if necessary), take the money and run and hope they didn't screw it up too badly. The writer in me wouldn't be content unless he got total control over the project but let's face it I'm no Woody Allen. Apparently he's quite good with his actors and let's them change his words all the time. But he's still the boss.

This brings us to Tao Lin, who's no Woody Allen either, but at least he lives in Brooklyn which is where Woody Allen was born. I've only flown over New York; I couldn’t tell you if Brooklyn was in the flight plan. Tao likes Woody Allen's movies, at least he admitted to Blake Butler he did. So he and I share that interest. I actually don't think Woody is that keen on his own films.

I don't know how well you know this young writer but he's something of an internet phenomenon, enough of a phenomenon to have an article written about him in Time Out so he's got that in common with Woody Allen too. I've only read Time Out. This is what the article had to say about him:

In addition to diligently maintaining his heavily trafficked blog, A Reader of Depressing Books, the prolific Lin is an editor at the online magazine 3:AM, has written a book of poetry and is now gearing up for the publication of his first two books of prose, the novel Eeeee Eee Eeee and a collection of short stories called Bed.

Lin, who got his B.A. from NYU in 2005, is presenting himself as something of a literary phenomenon — a DIY writer who’s making a name for himself without an M.F.A. or a mainstream publisher.

All very interesting but this is the bit that intrigued me:

A stickler for creative control, he once cancelled the publication of his own chapbook when he disagreed with changes suggested by an editor at Future Tense Books.

Now that I can relate to. The man has integrity. Good on him. It takes guts to stand up for what you believe in. Woody Allen has integrity too. Aeon J Skoble wrote an essay once entitled, 'Integrity in Woody Allen's Manhattan'. He also demands total creative control over his movies. This is where I start to get intrigued but we'll get to that in a second.

I read Tao's blog regularly-ish. He has an interesting naïve style of writing which I enjoy though a little goes a long way. But, and this is something I found with Erland Loe's Naïve.Super, simple can be deceptive. Here's a short poem from his blog:

i sold things on ebay that i don't have yet

i feel pressure to get these things

it is affecting my life

The reason I highlighted Tao's issue over his chapbook is that he's made an unexpected suggestion in a recent blog:

i encourage people to take my stories … or whoever else gives permission's stories … and edit them and submit them places, and write about it on your blog or comment here or email me when something gets accepted so me and other people can look at it and think 'haha'

it is interesting to me to see how people i know would edit certain stories i wrote

At first I had my doubts – I wasn't sure I'd read him right to be honest – so I reread the blog carefully and I had got it spot on. He was giving me, and anyone else interested, carte blanche to rework one of his pieces. How could one resist? This is basically how I work anyway. I get my story down any which way I can and then I go back to the start and rework it and rework it until it's hardly recognisable. I think of it as editing. Maybe it's writing. It's sometimes hard to tell the difference. Getting that initial draft done is the hardest thing and, especially with the novels, it's the real grunt work for me, a necessary chore.

When you first look at Tao Lin's work, it's easy to dismiss it as rough and unedited but on the whole that's not the case.

The stories in Bed I edited in agony. I spent like four to six hours a day for one month exclusively working on each story initially to create a “first” draft, and then further edited each story occasionally over the next six months or so, as they were rejected by magazines. - Interview in Redriver

My internet things might seem more impromptu. Some things can be typed really fast. If it's just a narrative I can do that very fast. If it's just plot and I want it to be funny.

If you read my print books it might seem different. Probably 95% of the time I worked on them was editing. - Interview in Litpark

Lin has a very clear idea about why he writes the way he does:

My ideal reader is myself. I’m the only person who knows exactly what I want to read. And that is what I write. Then I read it. Then I make it available for other people to read, for their own reasons — maybe so they can better know what they themselves want to read, which they can then try to write. - Interview in Publisher's Weekly

This is an important thing for every writer to acknowledge and one with which I agree, as does Woody Allen: "I do the movies just for myself like an institutionalised person who basket-weaves." There are simply too many people in the world for there not to be a market for what we do, no matter what it is.

Another thing about Tao Lin is that he works hard at his craft:

How did I get so prolific? I don’t know. I think about writing when I wake up, I think about writing constantly. But look at people who are martial arts masters or music prodigies. They practice like ten hours a day and structure their entire lives around martial arts or piano or whatever. Not many writers do that, I don’t think. Philip Roth supposedly writes eight hours a day, I heard from someone, but that is nothing compared to like Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee probably worked on martial arts and his body twelve hours a day. I write like four or five hours a day. If someone wrote and studied writing twelve hours a day every day they could easily write like a poetry collection, a story collection, a novel, and an essay collection every year, and have them be very good. - Interview in Redivider

Woody Allen is a well-known workaholic, something I've been accused of more than once and all three of us write about depressed and lonely characters. I think we've all been depressed and lonely characters at some point. Only Woody and I have written plays about them though.

Tao's poems deal with idleness and boredom a lot, things most authors would shrug off. I think we can all learn a lesson from this, to work with what we've got rather than sitting around idle waiting for the next big idea. That smacks of arrogance and, when you read the various interviews on-line with Tao, that's one thing this man certainly isn't. Woody Allen says he makes films to "fill the time". Surely poems would be easier. There are poems in his films, just not his own. I suppose that counts for something.

Here's another poem from Tao's blog:

i don't enjoy reading sartre's essay on the stranger by albert camus

i don't want to write this poem

i only read a few sentences of that essay

someone that famous must have said some asshole things

i hate this poem

Is this a great poem? Is the one further up the page? What do I know? I know a lot of people have a phenomenal amount to say about William Carlos Williams' tiny poem 'The Red Wheelbarrow' and that's supposed to be a great poem. I know that all three poems say more than what is contained in the words and that is good. That's what poems are supposed to do. I don't think Woody Allen writes poetry. I expect he did when he was young and got over it.

Anyway, I said I'd reworked one of Tao's stories. The one I picked was 'The Novelist' simply because I liked the title. You can read his original in Bear Parade. It might be a good idea to read it first. As for which one is the better? I like mine better – which as it should be – but I couldn't have written it without him.

Oh, and Tao, if you ever get round to reading this, if this was a ploy to get me to buy your books, it's worked.

The Novelist

I’m sitting in a bookstore in one of those plush one-seat sofas thinking about my novel when this big, tall lady with a shopping basket in which there are six or seven books catches my eye. I decide to follow her. She pauses, selects another book seemingly at random and tosses it in her basket. The woman notices me but my face has forgotten how to smile; it decides the floor is a much more interesting thing, so I look at the carpet and keep looking at the carpet until I'm sure she’s gone. I decide to check out the Poetry section but there are no plush one-seat sofas so I choose to sit on the floor. The poet-in-me is happy enough there on the floor but the novelist-in-me wants to go and find a plush one-seat sofa. I think it's time to stop simply thinking about my novel, so I take a pen from my pocket and write on my hand everything that's just happened.

I’m writing a novel set in a grocery store which is why I’m at the bookstore because the narrator in my novel goes from the grocery store to the bookstore. So I guess it's not set solely in a grocery store. I’m making this up as I go along. I’m writing a novel and I’m in the novel, which makes me a figment of my own imagination I suppose. Cool!

I ask the sales assistants at the information desk what their return policy is, the bookshop's that it. Since there's no till there maybe it's wrong to call them sales assistants because they're not actually selling. Writers fret about details like this. I ask both of them, simultaneously. This is for my novel but I don't tell them that because I don't believe my character – which is me – would tell them and I need the experience to be as realistic as possible. I turn my head to each of them as I talk and, using messed-up syntax, I ask politely, "The policy of return is what at this store?" My voice is weak, barely audible. I watch them closely and make a mental note of their reactions. The one says, "Excuse me?" His colleague says, "Uh?" A third information person – yes, that's better than 'sales assistant' – rises up from behind the counter, like a … robot. ('Robot' isn't quite right but it'll have to do for now). He glares at me, unblinkingly, like a robot. (Maybe 'robot' would work earlier too). My neck twitches, tenses. I clear my throat and inquire, "What is the time of closing for this store?" (This has all been rehearsed you must understand). I continue: "Which books by Joyce Carol Oates do you stock?" They dither and look at each other, clearly confused now that my mixed-up syntax has suddenly cleared up. Before they get a chance to react I tell them all, "Never mind," turn briskly on my heels and make a beeline for the Biography section where I kneel down and jot all this on my wrist now since my hand is full of other stuff. Sting's biography is in front of me. I stare at his face on the cover and it stares back. Nothing passes between us. I make a note of this too. It might become important.

Leaving there I found myself wandering around the Magazine racks like a little lost soul, maybe a foreigner (possibly a Spaniard) or a wee boy searching for his mammy then I go to the Games section and stroll through the aisles before finally moving into the Music area where I decide I really must head upstairs to the café. When I get there I find what feels like a good place and think a bit more about my novel. After a while I try another place which turns out to be an altogether better place because I get an idea there and locate a plush one-seat sofa the better to develop it. My idea is for the narrator to go insane on page 100. On page 99 the narrator will be sane though by page 101 he needs to be severely deranged. I take a pen from my pocket and make a note of this on my arm.

That done I headed to the General Fiction section where I start to pick up books at random. I read the first sentence of each book and the last sentence after which I give each book a makeshift review. On a scale of 1-100 most books score in the low 20’s. There are a few books where I can’t even make it through the first sentence; I get bored. These automatically receive a score of 1. I feel good. This is all going in my novel.

I track down a paperback copy of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. When I have it in my hand I check around for people but there's no one which is strange – this is the General Fiction section – but I don't question it. I settle myself in an empty plush one-seat sofa and rip out one of the blank pages from the book. As I tear the page I cough loudly so no one will notice me. On the blank page I write the words "Prowess", then "Morbid" and finally "Incongruous". These are all words that are going in my novel. I'm not convinced they'll all need capitals.

I realise I will need to discover what happens when someone spills coffee on a display of hardcover bestsellers. That needs to be in my novel, although I'm not sure yet if it'll be before or after page 100, so I buy a coffee from the café, an espresso, make my way to the hardcover display – it’s directly inside the entrance – and stand there thinking how great this will be. I sip my coffee. It burns my mouth. I sit the cup down on a Harry Potter book. It covers the title and I can't read which one it is. I pick it up but I forget to check which book it was. My mind is elsewhere. I can’t do it. There are all these invisible forces pulling me away from the action. I put the coffee back down, on Harry Potter’s face this time. I’m thinking I just need to say fuck it, fuck Harry Potter and start doing things. I’m thinking this could be a turning point in my life if I could just manage this. After I spill the coffee I’ll chat up some girls. I’ll infiltrate their circle of friends where I’ll become their leader. We’ll have an orgy where I'll impregnate all of them. I’ll father children with each of them and I’ll call them my minions. We’ll all live under Queens Street Station in an underground tunnel system where I’ll give them assignments, like in Charlie's Angels. My children will have more children and they'll become my minions too. We’ll all live in my underground lair. They’ll dig it deeper, straight through to China where they’ll travel the length of the Great Wall and reproduce with the Chinese. I take out the page I tore from A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and note all this down. I read it over carefully. This is good, I think. I'm a genius.

I continue sipping my coffee and wonder what to call my novel. I write, Me and My Minions on the bit of paper and then immediately score it out and write, My Minions and I but I score that out too and settle on Straight through to China. After I finish my coffee someone comes up to me and looks me straight in the face. I look down, at my hands, at the empty coffee cup, at the Harry Potter book. The person asks if he can help me. It’s a guy, an employee, but he doesn't look like a sales assistant. He has a jacket on or maybe a blazer. (I'll need to google them to see what the difference is). I tell him, "No" but he keeps staring at me, angling his head to try and see my face. I tell him that I’m fine and keep my eyes fixed on Harry Potter’s face, on his glasses. I turn away and head straight to the Travel Guide section. Thankfully the guy doesn't follow me. I pick up travel guides for Paris and the Bahamas but I'm not interested in them. This was not a part of the plan. I wait for the guy to move away from the entrance. He takes forever. As soon as the coast is clear I hurry quickly past the hardcover display and out of the bookstore. Outside, the sun is yellow and the sky is blue which is reassuring. I stand up straight. Posture says so much about the person within. The pavement is white. I think to myself, I am writing a novel. I am a novelist.

I stand on the pavement, feeling superior to all these other people who are not writing novels. A tall man strides by me. I wonder if he’s writing a novel. He doesn't look like the type. I feel superior to him. He’s about two feet taller than me. He doesn’t give me a second glance and strides in the bookstore at my back. I stroll into the parking lot, find my car, get in and sit gripping the steering wheel. My knuckles are white so I relax my grip. I pull the passenger seat forward and climb into the backseat of the car. I sit here a really long time listening to people in the parking lot and watching everyone going in and out of the bookstore.

I wonder if my novel will make me famous. I'll have to do a book tour. I should practice signing my name over and over again. I spy a young couple kissing outside their van before going into the bookstore. I wonder how many novels they have written between the two of them. None I expect. It starts getting dark. I stare at the people outside. I follow them with my eyes. I can't stop wondering how many of them are writing novels, if any. I watch a lady pet her son on the head like a dog. The son ducks, hops away. I watch a man skip across the parking lot. His friends jeer at him, from behind and call after him but I can't hear what any of them is saying. They all laugh and go into the bookstore. I pull my legs up on the seat and move to a crouch. Then I turn round, kneel and look out the rear window. It’s getting dark. The parking lot lights come on. I clamber over the backseat into the trunk area. It’s quiet. I peer at the back of the backseat. I've never looked at it this closely before. A car draws up beside me. I feel hidden. The car doors open, someone gets out and then they close the doors behind them. There are voices: a man and a woman. The man says, "Lets do it on the roof tonight, we’ll pull a mattress up there". The woman laughs. She says, "No, in next door's yard, against their back door". They laugh as they walk off. I imagine them with their arms around each others waists. Then it’s quiet again. It’s dark now. I think to myself, No one knows I am here. I lie down, tuck my legs up and wrap my arms around my knees. I feel small. I stare at the dark inside of the trunk and then close my eyes. Yes, this is all going in my novel.

© Tao Lin and Jim Murdoch

Friday 25 January 2008

Once upon a time in the west of Scotland

Today is January 25th, the anniversary of Robert Burns birth. In Scotland and throughout the world many people will be sitting down to eat a Burns Supper. And I suppose you expect me to say something about it.

Okay, I've never been to a Burns Supper in my puff, I've never worn a kilt, I hate whisky and I was a grown man before I tried my first haggis. Burns, for me, is inseparable from primary school where we were force-fed the stuff. And then there were the competitions, sing-songs and visits to the Burns Museum.

I can't even look back and feel the slightest wee bit sentimental about it because I don't. I did win a prize when I was nine or thereabouts for a project on Burns, the prize being a collection of Burns poetry, but that was the highlight of Burns for me. I can't even imagine if I ever emigrated, not that there's much chance of that now, that I'd suddenly (or even eventually) become all nostalgic, because I don't think I would.

I'd be lying if I said Burns never affected me. I used to regularly pass one of the many monuments to him in the early hours of the morning and every now and then I'd stop and look up at him. Eventually, as these things do, a poem took shape:

Burns Monument After Dark

Here we are again,
and your grey eyes and mine

avoid the distant lights -
still and afterglow remains.

I can deny reality
but what of my fears ?

Secrets are just lies
by process of omission:

Shadows amongst shadows
and tonight the dark scares me.

20 November 1984

Robert Burns has been idealised over the years, romanticised even, I suppose a bit like Robin Hood with all his stealing from the rich to give to the poor malarkey. Burns has been turned into a logo as familiar in Scotland as McDonald's Golden Arches, but I wouldn't say he's particularly revered and most of the people I've know who've gone to Burns Suppers have been more interested in John Barleycorn – that's whiskey to the rest of you – than the Bard himself.

Of course Burns is famous the world over because of the singing of 'Auld Lang Syne' at New Year. "Auld lang syne" literally means "old long since", but a more idiomatic English translation would be something like "long, long ago", "days of long ago", "in olden days", or even "once upon a time". Believe it or not, here in Scotland many of us can't get the words right for even the shortened version of the song.

The thing is there's some doubt whether Burns actually wrote the damn thing. At best you could credit him with collecting or restoring it. The ballad 'Old Long Syne' printed in 1711 by James Watson shows considerable similarity in the first verse and the chorus to Burns' later poem but its history goes back well before that. In the late seventeen-hundreds Burns forwarded a copy of the original song to the Scots Musical Museum with this note:

The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man's singing, is enough to recommend any air.

The Scots Musical Museum was a major publication that had a pivotal role in the collecting and preservation of Scotland's musical heritage. The project started with James Johnson, a struggling music engraver/music seller, with a love of old Scots songs and a determination to preserve them. Burns actively collected material and contributed significantly to the publication.

On sending a copy of the poem to Mrs Agnes Dunlop, Burns wrote:

Light be the turf on the breast of the heaven-inspired poet who composed this glorious fragment! There is more of the fire of native genius in it than half-a-dozen of modern English Bacchanalians.

That said, at another time, he also admitted that verses three and four beginning respectively, "We tae hae ran about the braes," and "We twa hae paidl'd in the burn," were of his own invention.

The earliest germ of the song 'Auld Lang Syne' is found in an anonymous poem of the 15th century, which George Bannatyne inserted in 1568 into his well-known manuscript of Scottish poetry, now in the Advocate's Library. The title of the poem 'Auld Kindnes Foryett,' is in modern Scottish "[Should] auld acquaintance [be] forgot,"— the first line of all the subsequent poems on the subject. - "Auld Lang Syne,"— Its Origin, Poetry, and Music.

The important thing is that he popularised the work in the same way that Shakespeare turned Romeo and Juliet into a household expression (it originated from an Old Italian tale).

The same goes for the tune. The one we are familiar with is not the original melody:

The first time the song of Burns was printed, with the melody now so well known, and to which it is universally sung, was in the second volume of Thomson’s Select Songs of Scotland, published in 1799. The editor rejected the old time-worn tune, and replaced it with a variation of another popular melody ['Can Ye Labour Lea'], which for many years had done service in a variety of forms for the dance and song of Scotland. - "Auld Lang Syne,"—Its Origin, Poetry, and Music.

The full history of the poem and the tune is gone through in great length in James Dick's article from which these two quotes come. For those who can read sheet music, there is an appendix with copies of the various melodies.

So what will I be doing tonight? Watching Jam and Jerusalem and New Tricks cuddled up on the sofa with my missus and a cup of coffee. But we will be having a haggis for our dinner just cos I happen to like haggis.

Tuesday 22 January 2008

Judging a book by everything bar its cover

I was one of those kids who did not like to eat his greens amongst a lot of other things. I ate with my eyes. If I didn't like the look of it then I knew, I just knew, that I wouldn't like it. In fact any possibility of that happening was negated by my use of the present tense, "I DON'T like it." That vegetable did not exist in my future. You know how the rest of that conversation goes.

Now I'm what passes for an adult and everything I didn't like as a kid I pretty much relish now. I'm particularly fond of red cabbage actually even if it does give me wind. I've learned not to judge a book by its cover. Most of my books have pretty naff covers, to be totally honest, apart from Adrian Chesterman's cover to The Demolished Man (which I once saw as a poster in Edinburgh and I regret not buying it to this very day). In fact some of the covers I have are simply boring-in-extremis like the cover to Nabokov's Bend Sinister. There is no picture. All you have is a sickly yellow background with the title and the author's name on it. Oh, and Penguin's logo in the top right-hand corner. What were they thinking? Even those of us who aren't exactly put off by a cover like that; we're not exactly encouraged by it either.

Anyway, typical me, I'm not here to talk about book covers. Maybe I will one day. There are other ways we can judge a book without actually having to read the ruddy thing. Book reviews are a start. I do read them on occasion but I'm rarely swayed by them. My tastes are very much my own and things the general cognoscenti might hate, odds on these are the things I'll like and vice versa.

Word of mouth. This is a dangerous one. My wife never buys me books that aren't on my Amazon wish list any more. She has given up completely trying to anticipate what I'll enjoy unless it's a textbook on Beckett and I've so many of them she wouldn't know what to get me there either. In the past I've had books forced upon me by people desperate to pass on the word and then I've had to force myself in turn to get through the damn thing or arrange never to see that person for the rest of my life. Blurb on the other hand is different. They're just desperate for anyone to buy the book. I'm a little more tolerant of blurb but I take it with a pinch of salt.

Price is always a consideration. I was in Waterstones yesterday and I happened to pick up a copy of Bend Sinister, curious if the cover had improved over the years (which it had by leaps and bounds but what could they have done to make it any worse) and I checked the price: £8.99. Eight pounds and ninety-nine pence (roughly $18.25) for a 200-page paperback! My copy cost me 35p brand new in 1974. That's a 10% increase every year. I would never pay that for a book I know I can get for three quid in one of the many second-hand books stores Glasgow has.

The Reputation of the author is a factor I consider which is why I bought my copy of Bend Sinister despite its awful cover. When I was in my early twenties – and could afford to splurge for new books – I only bought books written by authors who had won serious literary prizes and, on the whole, this gave my reading a decent bedrock. That said, Hermann Hesse's Gertrude left me cold; even great men can have an off day I suppose.

Know thyself. It doesn't matter how great the novelist is, how many prizes he's won, how gushing the reviews are or if they're giving away free copies, if the book is about a subject I'm not interested in then you're on a hiding to nothing. So on my shelves in my office you will find no war books, no westerns, no historical romances, no fantasy, no horror, no spy thrillers, no sports memoires and so on and so forth, etcetera etcetera, yada, yada, yada. You get the idea. I'm not saying that there are no shining examples of each of the genres listed but I'm not interested in the subject matter. That said, I've read three of the 'Smiley' novels by John le Carré and five of James Herbert's including all of the 'Rat' novels but they are very much the exceptions. I've also read no crime fiction apart from the three 'Laidlaw' novels by McIlvanney but only because they were written by McIlvanney.

Gut feeling. There's nothing like it. It's how I discovered Richard Brautigan and Gaétan Soucy and a host of others. I looked at the covers, scanned the blurb, flicked though the book and just went for it.

The thing is, I feel guilty when people start talking about this author or that because I don't have first hand knowledge of their work. But I know that I won't like it. "How do you know?" they ask. I just know. One of my bosses once bought me one of the 'Flashman' books for Xmas and looking pleased as I opened that gift was a task and a half, and I don't think my mock-enthusiasm was very convincing; I'm a lousy liar.

The same goes for the literati and the inteligencia: "Have you read the new [insert pretentious-sounding name]? You haven't? [Short sharp intake of breath] Oh, you have no idea what you're missing." I do. I really do. Seven hundred pages about things I can't relate to, don't understand, don't want to understand, don't care about and am not in the slightest interested in. "But, if you only give him a chance." No. No way, Pedro. Why should I? I have only so much time. I know. I absolutely know, without the glimmer of a shadow of a doubt (that doesn't work does it?), that there are loads and loads of great books out there that I will never read and I can live with that. What matters is that the books I do get round to reading are great.

So [affecting snotty-nosed accent] what, pray do tell, do you read?

If you want a decent cross-section have a look at my Goodreads page.

You won't find everything I've ever read there but everything that is there has a review. It's a good site. I wholeheartedly recommend it. You can judge for yourselves how great any of them are. There are a few duds but, I think, just a few.

Friday 18 January 2008

Come closer… closer… closer…

During an interview Oprah Winfrey asked the Nobel prize-winning author Toni Morrison: “Do people ever say they have to go over certain passages a bunch of times?” to which Morrison replied: “That, my dear, is called reading.”

I've written about reading before but I'd like to dwell a bit on close reading. Vladimir Nabokov suggested that, "In reading, one should notice and fondle the details." Consider for a moment the concept of speed-fondling. Okay, it's a fun concept, take a few more seconds – enjoy.

Right. Enough of that you at the back. Pay attention.

Close reading is not slow reading although reading slowly helps. A better description might be careful reading but really the term needs to be expanded on rather than simply trying to find another potted expression to explain it. When you're watching television or a movie you have the benefit of audio and visual cues, the tone of voice, the glint of an eye, even the background music, but with the written word these are often either absent or only suggested. Let's consider another quote by Nabokov: "Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only re-read it."

If ever a sentence needed close reading that one does.

Reading begins with knowledge. You read the words and you know what each of them means in their own right. If not, you look them up. Fine, we know what he's saying.

The next step is thought, we think about what he's saying. You can't re-anything that you've not done before so Nabokov is clearly not saying what he means. Why not? Did his parents not tell him, "Say what you mean and mean what you say?" By making his point in this way, by forcing you to consider what he's saying, the author is packaging his meaning like an advertising slogan (e.g. The Audience is listeningTHX (What else would they be doing?)).

The third step is understanding. Ah! Yes! What he is saying is that reading is a process that takes time. Let's consider a movie example. Most people have seen Airplane! more than once but who of you out there caught every running gag, parody, double entendre, visual pun, cameo and sly comment inserted in the credits the first time round? I don't see any hands raised and mine certainly isn’t and that goes for the second, third, fourth and fifth viewings. I'm human; while I'm processing one gag or wiping my eyes I'm missing another. Once my memory starts to kick in I can start to fill in the blanks, I begin to watch what's going on in the background because I know what's going on in the foreground pretty much by heart now.

What Nabokov meant by this odd little remark is that the first time we read a book we are so busy absorbing raw data that we can't appreciate all the subtle connections there may be between its parts – because we don't yet have the complete picture before us. A whodunit is a good example, whether one you've read or one you've watched, it's not until the second viewing you can appreciate the clues, red herrings and MacGuffins that the writer has inserted to make your viewing/reading pleasure all the more enjoyable.

Lastly, but not inevitably, we come to insight: how does this affect me? Should this affect me? Will this affect me? In the case of Nabokov's sentence the answer should be, yes, I will read with more care from now on. Over 300 words of "thinking" to "read" a 12 word sentence.

Okay, I'm not saying you should stop after every sentence and meditate for five minutes but I am saying that reading is a skill and most of us are amateurs. An eight year old can read but no one would buy him Finnegans Wake for Xmas and yet there are groups out there who meet on a regular basis to discuss this one single book. Here's a list of some.

Just because we're adults we assume we can read pretty much anything. Growing older does not guarantee growing better or wiser or anything else. If you stopped reading at eight then you have the reading skills of an eight year old. But, to be as obtuse as Nabokov, there's reading and then there's reading. Try reading this:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passen-core rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a peck of pa’s malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.

It's the opening two paragraphs to that Finnegans Wake I was on about.

Why – the question is simply screaming to be asked – would anyone write something so ruddy difficult? Wrong question. Why, seeing that it is so ruddy difficult, do so many people devote so much time to try and comprehend it? That is a much better question.

In his article What is Close Reading? Roy Johnson breaks down close reading under four headings:

Linguistic reading is largely descriptive. We are noting what is in the text and naming its parts for possible use in the next stage of reading.

Semantic reading is cognitive. That is, we need to understand what the words are telling us - both at a surface and maybe at an implicit level.

Structural reading is analytic. We must assess, examine, sift, and judge a large number of items from within the text in their relationships to each other.

Cultural reading is interpretive. We offer judgements on the work in its general relationship to a large body of cultural material outside it.

The first and second of these stages are the sorts of activity designated as 'Beginners' level; the third takes us to 'Intermediate'; and the fourth to 'Advanced'.

In three words: read, think, conclude. And by "conclude" I don't mean "stop reading", I mean "reach a conclusion".

The Literary Link has an interesting web page that expands these four pointers up to ten things you should be looking at in any piece of work: literal content, figurative language, diction, style, characterisation, tone, structure, context, texture and theme. Only then will you be able to fully assess the piece and be in a position to explain it. Pick any book you've read and try and explain it and you start to realise you've not read it nearly as well as you thought you did. I found this when I started filling in my back catalogue on Goodreads. There were books I had read only a few months earlier that I could remember next to nothing about.

A lot of people read for relaxation. And there are books for that purpose. They're the drink equivalent of diet coke. Reading can also be work. Work is not a bad thing. And there's nothing more satisfying than a job well done. You feel like you've achieved something.

So, with the forgoing in mind, can I leave you with something to read? It's about reading.

A Poem is not an Empty Room

“All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” Pascal

A man walks into
an empty room.
There is nothing there
and no one there.

That is to say no
one else is there.
He is all alone
with his own thoughts.

Entering the room
is significant.
Being in the room
is significant.

Where the room is
is irrelevant.
Who the man is
is not important.

What it really
means to be alone
is something he
might consider though

while he's waiting.

Wednesday, 05 December 2007

Tuesday 15 January 2008

Naïve. Super

About fifteen years ago I discovered Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar in a charity shop in Saltcoats. I had never read anything quite like it and pretty much never expected to again. Even today I never see his books in any of the mainstream bookshops despite their being reprinted over here by Rebel Inc. and everything I've bought since has been over the internet – three cheers for the internet – and I didn't imagine I would ever read anything comparable until one of my nice American relatives bought me Naïve. Super by the Norwegian author Erlend Loe for my Xmas. It was actually on my Amazon wish list but I'd completely forgotten about it. And I couldn't tell you where I first heard about it – on the Web obviously – but it will have simply been something I tripped over looking for something else, a bit like the Brautigan.

The book jacket states outright that the book is “deceptively simple,” (an overused expression if ever there was one) but there really isn't a better expression for it. The sentences are short and they use as straightforward a language as possible considering some of the subjects that are covered.

I have two friends. A good one and a bad one. And then there’s my brother. He might not be quite as friendly as I am, but he’s OK … My life has been strange lately. It came to a point where I lost interest in it all. It was my 25th birthday. A few weeks ago.

The narrator is an unnamed Norwegian who is waiting for something to happen in his life. As he puts it he's "turn[ed] down the tempo to zero". He's dropped out of an MA programme following a breakdown during a game of croquet and is living, jobless, in his brother’s house while the brother is away on business. He realises that this is only a comma in his life, that soon he will have to make a decision as to what he wants to do with the rest of his life, but he chooses to let the moment have control till then. An endearing quirk is that he makes lists (lists of things that make him happy, things that he liked when he was a kid, things that he has, things that he wants), some more sensible than others but they all reveal a bit more about this unusual young man.

A human being weighing 70 kilograms contains among other things:
– 45 litres of water
– Enough chalk to whiten a chicken pen
– Enough phosphorus for 2,200 matches
– Enough fat to make approximately 70 bars of soap
– Enough iron to make a two-inch nail
– Enough carbon for 9,000 pencil points
– A spoonful of magnesium
I weigh more than 70 kilograms.

He spends the bulk of his time in mindless activities, throwing a ball or hammering pegs into a child’s hammer-and-peg toy – likely there is a connection in his mind between these activities and the game of croquet earlier even though it was only the catalyst. He simplifies his life, quantifying it and compartmentalizing it in an effort to take control of the small things so as not to be overwhelmed by the endless number of large, life-changing things that seem beyond that control. It is almost as if he's regressed back to childhood. He hasn't. He still functions as an adult – he is perfectly capable of buying a car for his brother, for example – but he reduces his analysis of his life asking simple questions like, why don't I have a girlfriend and what am I supposed to do with all the things I know? Eventually he is persuaded to join his brother for a holiday in New York where his plans for the future start to coalesce. It is there that it becomes apparent that the naivety of childhood is not an escape from the complexity of adulthood, but a compliment to it.

Whilst he is going through all of this he begins reading a book by the British-born physicist Prof Paul Davies, a book he describes being about ‘life, the universe and everything’, which only serves to magnify his feelings of intimidation at the complexity of life.

I flipped through some pages, but started sweating and had to put it down. It was too much for me. There are limits to what I can handle right now. I walked around the flat for awhile, feeling uneasy.

The book is never named but it sounds like About Time: Einstein's unfinished revolution. Davies is primarily a theoretical physicist and cosmologist who has had a longstanding association with the problem of time; he is also a highly philosophical writer. It is the subject of time that the book's protagonist finds most fascinating but it is a childlike fascination. When at the top of the Empire State Building he makes a phone call to the ground floor. Eventually a man picks up the phone:

Hello? he says.
Hello, I'm calling from the top of the building, I say.
Yes? says the man.
Are you aware that time runs slightly faster at the top than it does at the bottom of this building? I ask.
No, says the man.
Well, it does, I tell him.
All right, says the man.
Are you impressed? I ask.
Not really, he says.

This is typical of the kind of thing that happens throughout this slim little volume. Davis's questions about the universe are the kind of things the narrator is interested in with respect to his personal universe. Many people ignore these questions and fill their lives as best they can. Loe's character doesn't. He doesn't ignore that questions exist. That said he doesn't worry overly much about not getting all the answers right away.

I am convinced that it's all about eagerness. That it's missing.
I must find it. Get it back.
It's out there.
It's probably pointless to talk about it.
It's a bit Zen.
I'll never make it as long as I try to.
Only when I don't try, will I make it.
Fucking Buddhists. They think they're so bloody clever.

There is a review on Amazon that is just perfect and it evokes the style of the student:

After reading the first couple of lines … I was hooked on to it and now I am in need of something similar to read.

This is definitely one of the best books I've ever read.
Because it made me re-believe.
In trees, and bikes and in people.

It's simple. Nothing too bad happens. Nothing too exciting.
It's real.
It's everything we're short of in today's society.

This book will make you think. Thinking is good. People should think more. And often. About all sorts of things.

A number of people liken it to Catcher in the Rye. I can see why, the young hero on a quest towards self-discover, but Salinger's book knows it has a serious message and the humour is by the by; Loe's book never takes itself too seriously but it is also a serious book, one, to be honest, I'm really too old to benefit from fully. Like Holden, the character is alienated but the strange thing is that we don't feel alienated from him. Holden seems only to be able to relate fully with his sister Phoebe; in Naïve. Super an important part of the story is the narrator's friendship with the five year-old Børre. Both protagonists have big brothers but only Loe's character interacts with his and, of course, both characters are brought to New York to meet their destinies. There are differences too, Holden actively alienates himself, he is cynical and angry whereas the Norwegian student is naïve and goes out of his way to please people. Both characters are, in their own ways, trying to cling onto childhood but Loe's creation is perhaps a bit more up front about it.

The book is still in print. Search it out if you missed it the first time. Books come and go all too quickly: two months, six months, a year at best. All the publicity, all the hype, all the fuss has now died down. It's at times like this books can get forgotten and this is one that shouldn’t be. I would recommend it to everyone. Find a copy and pass on the word.

Erlend Loe had written six children's books before his first foray into the adult world with Naïve. Super which was a huge success in his native Norway, and a bestseller throughout Europe. In March 2006 Loe received the Prix Européen des Jeunes Lecteures for the novel in The European Parliament. He has since published another seven novels for adults but none of these have been translated into English.

Saturday 12 January 2008

Everyone is on the stage. There's no one left in the audience.

Everyone needs to have a rant every now and then. Please join me on one of mine.

Writing, and by that I mean putting pen to paper or rattling away on a keyboard, is easy, child's play. Pretty much everyone can read and write. All you need is something to write about and voila! You’re a writer. And of course as soon as you're a writer then you need to get published because that's what writers do, real writers anyway.

Why doesn't everyone who has ever heard Beethoven's Fifth Symphony suddenly decided they want to be a composer? Or what about everyone who's been exposed to Édouard Manet's Olympia? Do they drop everything and splurge this week's wages on a set of oil paints and a stack of canvases then try to convince the woman next door to strip off for them for art's sake?

Most don't because they realise there is something more to being an artist or a composer and maybe the woman next door simply isn't that kind of lady. No one (unless you're the next Mozart or Picasso) sits down and just does it. But to write all you need is an old school jotter and a pen. That's what Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot in. That's what my old mum wrote her poems in. What can be so hard about it?

I've actually been all three in my life and, yes, writing is, for me at least, the easiest of the three but it is not easy. I have, I'd like to think, a modicum of natural talent. That's a help. It helps not having to search for 'modicum' in a thesaurus for starters but simply having a decent vocabulary does not a great writer make.

Why back in the 1900s were there not more writers? There was no TV, no internet, no movies, no games consoles – what was there to do but sit around and write poems and stories and novels? Why, now there is too much to do, is everyone scribbling down poems and stories and novels in their lunch breaks? It doesn't make sense.

Or maybe it's this … maybe the guys back in the 1900s had nothing to write about. Imagine that, all the time in the world to write and nothing to write about. And those who did write wittered on about babbling brooks and fields full of daffodils and things that would just get laughed out of court these days.

Could it be that today's poems and stories and novels and blogs (ooh, ooh something new to pour all our angst into) are all a reaction to the modern word? Who the hell has time to wander lonely as a cloud these days? And if I suddenly decide I must go down to the sea again, it's an hour bus ride to Glasgow Central Station and then a forty-five minute train ride to Saltcoats and, really, Saltcoats beach is nothing to write home about.

It seems everyone's a writer nowadays. Because there's nothing any one of us can do about the way the world is, the only thing left is to bitch about it. On July 31, 2006, Technorati tracked its 50 millionth blog. There are more than 2 blogs created each second of each day: about 1.6 million postings per day, or about 18.6 posts per second. The New York Times reports that, according to figures released this spring, a new book of fiction is published in the United States every 30 minutes. A conservative reckoning of the number of books ever published is thirty-two million; Google believes that there could be as many as a hundred million.

What the hell is there left to say?

"I have nothing to say, and I am saying it." - John Cage

Wednesday 9 January 2008

Writing in outer space

A comment made by Doris Lessing in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech refers to the concept of "space" and how that affects writers:

Writers are often asked, How do you write? With a processor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand? But the essential question is, "Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write?" Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas – inspiration.

If this writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn.

When writers talk to each other, what they ask each other is always to do with this space, this other time. "Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?"

One of the facts that are often reported about my fellow Scot, J K Rowling, is the fact that she did a great deal of writing in numerous cafés (e.g. Nicolson's Café and Elephant House Café). Now, of course, she has all that Virginia Wolfe says a woman needs to be able to write: "money and a room of her own." I even heard a rumour that she had a room in her home converted to look like a coffee shop so that it would be more conducive to writing. I have no idea if that is true and I really can't be bothered checking but it does make me wonder about where people write when they have a choice.

Roald Dahl (pictured above) wrote in his garden hut. I've read that Salinger also has a hut but I take everything I read about him with a pinch of salt. He can't be long for this world. Maybe then we'll find out. Of all the writers in the world he is the one who is most obsessed with his "space" so much so that he regards publication as an intrusion into it.

Having a space to write is of such importance to writers that, seeing there is a market for it; businesses have started renting out writers' rooms. You can read an article about this at

The Guardian has an interesting web page which displays photographs of the rooms where a variety of professional writers work including the likes of Martin Amis, A L Kennedy (probably my favourite strangely enough), Alan Sillitoe and Seamus Heaney. Each author also talks a bit about their particular space. An even more detailed invasion of Will Self's room can be found here, 360º in 71 photos by Phil Grey.

I've thought back on the places I have written and what's clear to me is that I don't need much to be able to write. I've written on the backs of receipts, on brown bags, in the margins of newspapers, never on my skin (not even a phone number). I always carry a notebook with me. They used to be cheap things but, people started buying me them as presents; my last four in fact were all gifts. I've written on two different manual typewriters, an electric typewriter, a ZX Spectrum, an Atari ST, a selection of PCs, a laptop and even a palmtop; I've written at home, at work, on buses, trains, cars, in the middle of the street, on the loo, during my History O-Level (honest); I've gotten out of bed to write; I've tried talking into a microphone while out walking in the countryside, but what I always wanted was an office, a real office and, for the past four years, I've had one.

For all that I'm not sure an outer space is particularly important to me. The office is a luxury not a necessity. The space I worry about constantly is my inner space. Once I'm there all I really ask for is privacy and a bit of shush so that I can explore it. This is something I have in common with Julie Myerson whose room is one of those featured on the Guardian site:

Once I start writing, I'm inside my own head and nothing else exists and it makes no difference at all what's in front of me. When I write, I go somewhere else entirely.

Beryl Bainbridge agrees:

I don't mind working in a bit of clutter. It's your head that has to be clear.

as does Sue Townsend:

Most of the stuff you see in the photograph is redundant: the books go unread, the files are never opened, and the posters are unseen. The only tools I need to work with are the broad black ink Berol pen and the lined A4 notepad, with a margin.

I particularly like Siri Hustvedt's perspective:

A room to write in isn't like other rooms, because most of the time the person in it doesn't see it. My attention is on the page in front of me, on what the people in the book are doing or saying, and my awareness of the things near me is muted, part of the vague sensual information that comes and goes as I mull over the next sentence.

Anyway, I'll leave you with a photo of my space. Both my wife and I have our own offices. It was the one thing we were determined to get when we moved this time. They are very different places but we are very different people. The desk hasn't been tidied up for the picture. Clutter is a distraction. The room is an orderly place. It has an internet connection but only my private e-mail comes through there, all my writer stuff comes through the laptop at which I'm sitting now in the living room where it's warm; this is Scotland and it is winter remember.

The photo on the bookcase is of Beckett. I have a photo of Woody Allen on the other bookcase, the one where I'm sitting to take the photo. The fish is a fantail. He lives with a snail. He used to live with two but he ate one. Either that or the snail rapture came and only one was worthy.

Sunday 6 January 2008

Walking and chewing gum at the same time

The following appears at the beginning of an article in The Telegraph about the burden of e-mail:

In the London Library, the natural habitat of the London writer, there are two main rooms where people work. In one, the Reading Room, people do exactly that - read.

In the other, the Computer Room, they tap away on computers.

Over the past couple of years, I've noticed an odd thing. The really prolific and distinguished writers - A N Wilson, Sir Tom Stoppard, Alan Bennett - tend to sit still, reading in the Reading Room.

to which I responded:

The reason "the really prolific and distinguished writers" have so much to write about is that they do exactly that. It's the old principle from Ecclesiastes 3 that there is a time for everything.

They have learned what our parents tried to hammer into us that you can't do two things at the same time to which we responded by sticking a piece of chewing gum in our mouths and walking out the door taking care to slam it behind us of course.

Oh we knew it all, didn't we?

One of the most common pieces of advice given to an up-and-coming writer, other than to write about what they know, which I've already passed comment on, is to read. And here we find old, established writers still doing exactly that. Why? Because writers need something to write about? Partly. But even Bennett, who excels in his ability to make the trivia and minutiae of existence endlessly fascinating, still feels, I imagine, the need to keep his writing skills sharp, and there is no better way to do that than by reading great writing, preferably not your own. But I suspect it is something simpler than that: reading has not turned into a busman's holiday for these men. They still enjoy the act of holding a good book in their hands and turning the pages not knowing what they might contain.

Reading is one of those activities that often gets fitted in. Most of mine has been done on buses and trains clawing back the time. My wife and I even picked where we lived to give ourselves more time to read on the bus. But we all know what Burns said about man and his plans even if we don't know what "agley" means exactly.

The thing is, and this is something that embarrasses me no end, I find reading hard. This is nothing to do with old age hanging round the corner; I've always found reading hard. With a few exceptions, writers like Philip K Dick and Richard Brautigan, I struggle to get through most books. I persist in reading for the same reason that I insist on eating my greens, because I know it's good for me. I just wish I enjoyed it more. Of course, now I'm older I relish the greens I used to have to force down as a child but I still don't take as much pleasure in reading as much as I'd like.

The problem is always the same: subject matter. I find it hard to read something I'm not interested in no matter how technically brilliant it is in exactly the same way as I find it hard to listen to certain types of music. Can I draw the reader's attention to exhibit one: opera. I don't like opera. I don't get opera. I have listened to all kinds of opera from Die Fledermaus right through to Eight Songs for a Mad King and I don't like it. Any of it. Okay, maybe a bit of Carmen. It bothers me that I can't acquire a taste for it but there you go. Sometimes when I'm listening to the soundtrack to Alien Resurrection I skip over 'Priva Son D'Ogni Conforto' but mostly I'll listen to it in the vain hope that one day I'll actually enjoy it. Just don't expect to find me sobbing into my glass of Chianti during the death scene in Tosca any day soon.

I just wish there were more books out there that excited me as much as hearing The Wall for the first time. (Okay, so it's a rock opera – sue me). The irony is that, opera excepted, my musical tastes are expansive; there not much I don't like though a little thrash metal does goes a long way.

There're still a couple of Brautigan novels I've not read yet. I think it's time I broke down a bought one of them for a treat. Thankfully my wife bought me a copy of William McIlvanney's, Weekend, for Xmas but it won't last forever.

Thursday 3 January 2008

This blog might offend some people

I'm pleased to start off the New Year with the publication of two poems in Eclectica.

The two poems, 'The Answer' and 'The Other Side of the Poem II' date back to 2004. At the time I was feeling particularly negative about the capacity of poetry to communicate effectively. The process of writing poetry and the function of the resultant poetry (its significance to its writer and its readers) is something that has preoccupied me for a long time and still fascinates me.

I've never been able to stop writing any more than I can stop going to the bathroom. There are lots of times I've wished the writing would go away and there are times it has… and then I've found myself missing it. I imagine I'd feel the same about my glasses if ever I got my eyesight fixed; I'd miss them. What I wanted was to not write, not need to write, not want to write, not be able to write and have nothing happening that needed to be written about. I wanted to be, and I use the term loosely, normal. But it never happened. The poems kept coming. The question was, were these products of my mind anything other than excretia, a waste product, something that should be discarded not treated as art?

I don't know about you but I find toilets always inspire me. I even wrote a poem about one many years ago in which I liked a w.c. to a confessional:


After entering the cubicle
the door is bolted.
Unbuckling my jeans
I lower them past my knees.

There was no curtain or grill –
somehow I thought there might be.

In silence I sit
doling out dispensations and penances
to the shaky biro on the wall.

24 July 1979

I think it must be the quiet, somewhere to gather ones thoughts. I never read on the loo though. I've never tried but I really can't see me doing it.

The thing is, people insist in seeing art in the most peculiar things. Chris Ofili's 1998 painting No Woman No Cry stands on two dried, varnished lumps of elephant dung. A third is used as the pendant of the necklace. Piero Manzoni went one step further back in 1961 with his "edition" of 90 tins of merda d'artista; that would be artist's excrement to you and I. One man's shit is another man's art. Literally. The Tate Gallery has paid £22,300 for one of them. It also owns works by Ofili.

'The Answer' addresses what to my mind is the first and most important function of poetry, to clear the poet's mind. Poetry is so often regarded as a beautiful medium and so much poetry is beautiful (daffodils, brooks, yada, yada) but to my mind poems are bi-products at best and waste products at worst of a mind in flux. I've never understood what goes on when I write anything. There's just this constipation, for want of a better word, in my head and I need to clear my mind; writing poetry helps and there's nothing like a good dose of logorrhoea to give your psyche a good clearing out.

I don't read a lot of my own poetry. I don't need to. It's not that I remember them all because there are just far too many – 'The Answer', for example, is my 939th poem – it's more that I'm done with them, the writing of the poems was what I needed to do. I felt better once I had got them out of my system. Much. A poem is something that gets discarded in the process.

I don't know about you but my father had a habit of providing updates as to the state of his bowels. That said, unlike the Australian writer, Gerald Murnane, he didn’t feel the need to commit these to paper. It's probably an age thing and, thank God, I'm not quite there yet.

Personally I've never been known to jobbie. People in showbiz and royalty never do jobbies. - Billy Connolly (The Jobbie Wheecha)

The second poem. 'The Other Side of the Poem II', also has a scatological subtext. In this poem I liken a poet to a door through which poetry passes and then the door is closed. Once again the point I am making is that a poem is no longer connected to the poet who produced it. Indeed, in this poem, I anthropomorphise them (South Park beat me there) and talk about them having a life on their own.

In the first poem the poet is referred to as a "poor sod"; in the second the body of poems are quantified as "a shitload". I'm not the first of course to use scatological references in poetry (Catullus, Swift and T S Eliot all got there before me) and, although I can't think of a poetical use off the top of my head, Beckett used scatological names and references in many of his prose works, Krapp being the most obvious example.

There is a positive side to the second poem in that I wish that rather than being a door, I was really a window not so that my readers can see the real me but so that I can reveal truths about the world. I've never been able to write poetry to order. It's probably why I keep straining away at the same old topics because I never quite manage to say what I want and so I have to keep going back again and again till I get it right, till I distil some truth down to the perfect couple of lines.

It's like an artist who wants to paint beautiful things but all his brush produces are corpses. I write what needs to be written not what I want to write and a lot of it was crap.

I'll leave you with one further poem from this run, the most in-your-face, a downright aggressive piece. In this I liken writing poetry to what some toddlers feel compelled to do. Nuff said.

Shit Poem

I don't like reading
I don't much
care for writing them either

but then what's a man
to do with
all the shit inside of him?

I can't say why I
have to
lie in it
or even play with the stuff.

It just feels good to.
So what
are you all

You can't really believe this is art.

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