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

Friday 31 October 2008

Aggie and Shuggie 12

Duggie: Mags. Mags!
Maggie:: Ma da says Ah'm no sposte talk t'you.
Duggie: How come?
Maggie:: Cos yerra bad influence.
Duggie: Ah'm no.
Maggie:: Yoos are too, ye wee prick. Ye wis seen doon the gaswurks.
Duggie: Ah don know whit ye mean.
Maggie:: Ye do too, Duggie Scoat, ye wis seen wi an owd copy o Roabert Ludlum. Ludlum af aw hings!
Duggie: Ah wis hawdin it ferra freend.
Maggie:: Shair. It disne mayter. Ah dinne wanti hang wi sumwan whose homeys read Roabert Ludlum. Cun ye no fin sum mates that're intae Sartre ur Camus.
Duggie: Ah huv bin readin gud stuff.
Maggie:: Like whit?
Duggie: Ah wis oan the Intraweb last night ana caught an innerfew wi yer Unca Jim. It wis poppins.
Maggie:: Whur?
Duggie: Adrun Graam's bloag.
Maggie:: Wull Ah huvne earduv im. Yer talkin oot yer arse.
Duggie: Ah'm no. Scoot's onna.
Maggie:: Ye wis neva in the Scoots.
Duggie: Okay, so Ah wisne in the Scoots but Ah did read the innerfew. Ah'm nae lyin.
Maggie:: Right, smeart fart. Whit did e huv t'say?
Duggie: E talked aboot brollies an 'The Burdie Song' and the Nobul Prize and Woody Allen an loadsuv uther stuff.
Maggie:: Ah'm no shair. Ah don think ma Unca Jim widbe goin oan aboot 'The Burdie Song'.
Duggie: E did tae. Scoots…
Maggie:: Ye wisne in the piggin Scoots! Fine, Ah'll check it ifta Ah get hame. Whit wis the site agen?
Duggie: Adrun Graam. Ah'll text ye.
Maggie:: Cheers. Ah've goat t'go the noo.
Duggie: An ye'll explin t'ye da aboot the gaswurks?
Maggie:: Aye. Mibbe.
Duggie: Jawanni go to the pichas oan Satdy?
Maggie:: Don push it, Duggie. We'll see.
Duggie: Dancer. See ye then, Mags.
Maggie:: Whiteffer.

Thursday 30 October 2008

Aggie and Shuggie 11

Shuggie: Ag, whit d'ye know aboot Texans?
Aggie: Texan? Is tha no a barra choclut?
Shuggie: Aye, it yayst t'be but ye canne gettum ainy mair.
Aggie: Cun ye no?
Shuggie: Wull Ah've nae seen wan in doankey's years.
Aggie: Gud. Ye shudne be stuffin ye face wi sweets ainyway wi tha belly af yair's.
Shuggie: Whit belly?
Aggie: The wan whit's hangin ower the edge af yer troosers. An quit suckin in yer gut or ye'll dae yersel permumunt damage.
Shuggie: Ma belt's too tight tha's aw it is.
Aggie: Aye, an Ah'm the Queen o Sheba.
Shuggie: Whit's tha goat t'dae wi ainyhin? Ye've goat ma brain aw confuddled the noo, wumman.
Aggie: Well, tha widne take much.
Shuggie: Cun yoo no stoap slaggin me furra minute? Yer suppaste te have respect fer yer man. That's whit ye prammist the priest.
Aggie: Shuggie, yoo jist setumup an Ah jist knoaksem doon. Whitur ye oan aboot Texans fer anyhoo?
Shuggie: Ah wis readin a refyoo oanline fram a bloke cawd Sammy Hoostun. Sa refyoo af oor Jim's book. It's a gudyun.
Aggie: Isne Hooston in Texas? Dus tha Sammy bloke stay in Hooston? Mibbe is mate Steve lives in Austin.
Shuggie: How wid Ah know? An whothfukis Steve whunis at hame?
Aggie: Steve Austin? The Sex Millyun Doalla Man.
Shuggie: Whit are ye oan, wumman?
Aggie: Ah'm jist makin coanversation, Shuggie, like we yist t'dae whun we wis coortin. Tha is when yer tung wisne half way doon ma throat. So whit's oor Sammy goat t'say fer imsel?
Shuggie: Ah canne remmemer. It wis quite lang. E gave Jim fair stars. Ah remmer that.
Aggie: Oota whit? Fair stars oota a hunner's no brullyunt.
Shuggie: Oota five Ah sappose. Ah dunno.
Aggie: Wull, tha's no so bad then is it? Sbetterun three stars.
Shuggie: Or two…or wan eefun.
Aggie: Ah'd like t'meet the wee nyaff daft enuff t'gie oor Jim wan star.
Shuggie: Ah'd gie im a Glesgae Kiss.
Aggie: Aye, an Ah'd hawd im doon whailst ye stuck the heedinim. So, Ah spose ye didne bookmark tha refyoo?
Shuggie: Ah did. Is bloag's cawd Book Chase.
Aggie: Book Chase? Sno vury Texan, is it? Ah thought it mightuv bin cawd 'The Lone Star Book Corral' or summit. Raight. Ah'll fix us a nice cuppa tea an then we cun huv a wee shuftie at it.
Shuggie: Any burbun creams, hen?
Aggie: Thur's a fresh packet in the drawer. Jist two mind, or ye wilnae eat yer tea.
Shuggie: Whiteffer yer say, hen.

Monday 27 October 2008

Drowning men and dead poems

Rejection is hard to take. Let's face it, no one likes to be rejected. But there's something worse. And that's the look on your kid's face when they've been rejected, they've not got the part in the school play or they've not been picked as class monitor or Belinda has decided she'd rather go out with Gary. It really doesn't matter what the situation is, you feel for them.

My dad used to collect me at the end of the day and drive me home from school – Primary School – and one day I had a falling out with my best friend who wanted to fight me and, not wanting to fight him, I fled to the back gate and the safety of my dad's car. The crowd that followed were suitably disappointed especially when my father, being who he was, decided to lecture the assembled mob about the wrongs of fighting. Embarrassing? Tell me about it. But there was worse. After said lecture did he not kick me out of the back of the car to fight my best friend just to show I wasn't a coward. My best friend, for the record, was built like a rake and I was by far the biggest and strongest kid in my class so all I did was stop him hitting me for five minutes before my dad broke up the sad excuse for a fight and drove me home.

If your house was on fire, what would you run in to save? Luckily my daughter doesn't live with me although I miss her terribly (now we'll see if she really reads my blog) so I wouldn't have to rush in to save her but I would run back into a burning building to try and save my writing.

Consider what these various writers have said about their work:

Kurt Cobain: All my songs are like my children, all have different personalities and characteristics

Kate DiCamillo: My books are like my children. I see them as deeply flawed, but loveable anyway. I can’t pick a favourite. I love them differently, but equally.

Maria Elyse: I realized that my poems are like my children. (Not that I have any children…but say if I did.) When it comes down to it, I love them because they are a part of me. However, like children, they definitely have their moments when they: annoy, upset, embarrass, anger and torture me.

Adrienne Rich: My poems are like children; you have them and you’re working on them, and then they go out into the world and they’re themselves and they’re not you anymore.

All this started me thinking about people and their relationship to their writing.

On the now defunct BBC Get Writing website I ran across this by a writer I can only identify as fayween:

I have been unlucky in my life, as I have no children to grieve my passing when it comes. Perhaps my poems are my children. A tribute to the fact that I have lived. A sad tribute indeed but proof that once I walked upon this earth. The fickle heart soon forgets and moves to other thoughts. Memories fade into the sameness of oblivion. If I could just write one poem or piece of prose that captures the mind and the imagination of men perhaps in this I can live on. If not I will be fodder for others poems, for future flowers and unwept tears.

It's quite poetic on its own I have to say but it's interesting to compare this to what the redoubtable – and also childless – Dolly Parton has to say about her songs:

Yeah. I grew up hard but I think people appreciate that you love your parents and you love your family. I do and I’ve been very blessed. So that’s that little song but they’re all special. I always say they’re like my children and I expect them to support me when I’m old — and some of them are. – Dolly Parton, The Sun, 13th Dec 2007

Sadly not all children survive. Teachers talk about "killing your babies" which is a gruesome image but I suppose it's meant to underline how hard it can be to let go of those cool lines or plot twists. In an article appropriately entitled "Kill Your Babies", Sallyann Keith references author Tony D’Souza:

“Kill your babies” Don’t become infatuated with something you have written. “A writer’s greatest tool is the waste basket.” Let the story be what it needs to be, not what you need to make it. Let it go. – Writers Forum

It's hard. I have so many cool quotes that I could've put in this article but how many are really needed for you to get my point?

I, of course, have been writing poetry long enough that it was only a matter of time before I wrote about this:



The poem came back today.

"Why won't you write me ?"
it asked.

"What use am I in your head ?

"They won't start to like you
even if you hide me, besides,
I'll glare out of your eyes
at them.

"And what'll you do then ?

"I will be born.
One way or another.
And you will love me."


Finally I gave in
and wrote the poem too soon
and it lay on the page
twisted and malformed.

"Dad - help me," it cried
and I went to tear it up.

But I couldn't do it.


"What sex am I ?"
the poem asked.

"You are a boy."

"Then there is life in me.
I shall go and sleep
with a virgin mind."


My poem came home today.

"Dad - nobody understands me.
I don't think they even like me."

"Don't worry son -
they don't understand me either."

30 March 1989

When an editor rejects your submission who exactly are they rejecting? Talking about your work as your offspring is one thing but it does also distance you from the work. They're rejecting the work, not me. It's like when you say to a disobedient child: "I don't hate you, I hate the things you do." But is there a difference in a kid's head?

We think about our writing as something that's come out of us and kids come out of us, right? So does pee and poo and sweat and tears and pus and sputum and sebum and earwax and dander. We shout at our kids and our wives, our dogs and the TV and our words won't come back, they're gone, out there, we can't take them back any more than we can reattach our hair or toenail clippings.

Part of me thinks of my writing as something that gets discarded or shed on the way. A lot of work usually goes into ridding myself of it – it can be a painful process – and when I'm done I don't need to go back and re-examine those issues. Let me illustrate.

Several times in my life I've found myself working on sequences of poems. The reason for this is that I've not been able to fully express or explore the issue in the first poem. One of these sequences was 'The Drowning Man' poems. The first poem in the sequence is 'White Light':


Did you ever think you might have
done it because you wanted to?
she said after.
No need to apologize.

Drowning inside I close my
eyes allowing such feelings
to cover me as will.

Unaware of their names I
open my mouth to the waters.

19 June 1985

Now, it would take too long to explain all the events that led up to me writing this poem (and I'm not sure I want to anyway), but after I'd finished it I knew I'd opened a whole can of worms. I realised that there was in effect a side of me that was struggling with certain emotions, literally drowning in them but never actually drowning.

Over the next five years I chipped away at this problem until I finally reached my Ziggy Stardust moment:


He is undead.
He comes from within
and his name is Hunger.

I bring him women
to help feed him
because their feelings are the strongest.

They give him guilt
and fear
and pain -
now there's a feeling
to sink your teeth into.

25 June 1989

The thing is, now I'm done with all that. The poems have served their purpose. I've worked out what was bothering me and moved on. It's the same with my prose writing. When I was editing my book a few months back I couldn't help but wonder who the guy was that wrote it. I'm not him any more. I've rejected him.

The point I'm making is about the difference between a writer's perceptions of his work than the reader's. I know who I was when I wrote 'White Light' and I can remember roughly what happened in the intervening years. I say 'roughly' because I don't think about that time in my life any more. It's done. I've moved so on since then.

A lot of people will disagree with me. And that's fine. I'm not trying to convert anyone but – as always – I'm hoping what I write will cause people to take a step back and think about they're relationship to their writing. I'm not suggesting for a minute that you burn all the poems you've ever written or flush them down the lavvy pan because they've served their purpose because other people can make something out of them that has nothing to do with you.

I returned to the poem-as-child metaphor a few years ago. A very different poem to 'Sons'. And this is where I'll leave you.


After many years the words returned
bitter at being forgotten so long.

They forced me to write down angry things.
I imagine it must have amused them.

They gutted truth with a single line
and left the corpse for me to dispose of.

And I was actually grateful.
The poem lay dead but I was alive.

There will always be other poems.

5 July 2003

Thursday 23 October 2008

An interview with Claire Askew (part two)

In my last post I had the pleasure of introducing you to one of the bright new poets-on-the-block, Edinburgh-based Claire Askew. If you've not read the first part of my interview you can see it here. In this second part I wanted to know more about what's happening with her now and the struggles she has had trying to establish herself as a poet in this 21st century we all find ourselves in. But first a word about her own sources of inspiration:


9. As a child you were brought up on a steady diet of Ogden Nash, Hillaire Belloc and Patrick Barrington (with a special place in your heart till this day for 'Jabberwocky'); in later life I see you moved through the likes of Ted Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy and Liz Lochhead, subsequently winding up at Allen Ginsberg, notwithstanding a slight dalliance with songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Donovan and Don McLean. Do you feel that a poet needs to work through the past to get to their own present?

To an extent, yes. Some people advocate reading poetry right back through the ages until you get to the likes of Homer and Aristotle, but I take a less rigorous approach. My very first scribblings – at the age of seven or so – were inspired by the light verse my parents used to read to my sister and I as children, and when I first started to write more seriously, I was still only really aware of more contemporary poets like Carol Ann Duffy and Liz Lochhead, both of whom I’d studied in school (although I’d discovered bits of Hughes, Larkin, Tennyson and Walter de la Mare too). It wasn’t until I got to university that I started to delve into much of the earlier stuff...

Rather than advocating reading the poetry of the past, I think I’d say that young poets ought to read what inspires them, regardless of what that is. A good knowledge of what’s gone before is definitely a good thing to have, and of course, the more widely you read, the more your writing stands to benefit. But when it comes to finding yourself in your own present, the most important thing to do is write about what bothers you, what moves you and what inspires you. It’s no good trying to write like Shelley if secretly, you couldn’t care less about that kind of poetry! I think that’s particularly true for young writers who are still trying to find their feet.

10. No one would argue that things are not well in the world of poetry. You live in Edinburgh and I in Glasgow but I note the comment you made about trying to fit in there:

Poetry in Edinburgh can be incredibly oligarchic – going to a poetry reading here sometimes feels like straying into someone’s private dinner party.

I found the same thing here in the west; in fact the first poetry reading I ever attended was so off-putting that I never attended another. Will this snotty-nosed attitude be the death of poetry?

Poetry’s always been like this, I reckon. You can go as far back into the annals of history as you like – you’ll still find evidence of cliques and grudges within writing communities. Writing is solitary, but it’s also competitive – particularly these days when poets have to vie for the attention of an increasingly select readership. So I do understand where the mindset comes from, but what I don’t understand is the fact that everyone accepts this state of affairs. If anything, poetry’s underlying snobbery and nastiness has been massively facilitated by the rise of the Internet – now, poets take to their blogs and networking pages to bitch, argue and plot in full view of their victims!

Last year I was really angered by some of the blog posts that sprang up about Sinead Morrissey after she won The Poetry Society’s big annual poetry prize. Some of the stuff that was said about her (99% of it down to sour grapes – I’m sure she was not considered a pariah before her win) was very personal indeed, and it really made me think twice about whether I wanted to get any further involved in an artistic community that was capable of such malice. I have seen similar things on a more local scale – also last year, the Edinburgh poetry community was split down the middle as a result of what was, in my opinion, a severely ill-advised blog post which got rather personal about one local poet. I still see the fallout from that particular event to this day when I attend certain readings and events, and it really saddens me. The British poetry community would be a better place if we could all get over our egos and opinions and learn to help and encourage one another. It wouldn’t take much... but sadly I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon.

11. Poetry of the people, by the people and for the people. Is that the answer to poetry's woes? Does there need to be a coup?

I’m a little nervous about saying this, but to an extent I think yes. I’m not sure about “of the people, by the people, for the people,” but I definitely think poetry needs shaking up in a big way if we’re ever going to see readers returning to it.

12. Tell me about One Night Stanzas. I know you're looking to spread the load a bit – how can people help?

Basically, One Night Stanzas isn’t just a personal blog where I rattle on about myself and what I’ve been doing. I want it to reflect the needs of its readers, so first and foremost, I want people to get in touch and tell me what they want to hear about. No request is too small, no query is too trivial, and there’s no such thing as a stupid question. I also want to hear what I’m doing right and what I’m doing wrong – what people want to see more of on the blog, what they’ve found useful. You don’t necessarily have to email me... I read every comment that lands in each comments box.

I’ve also recently begun featuring the work of poets who read the blog. So far there have been two ONS Featured Poet, who’ve had a selection of their work appear on the site and been given the chance to talk a little about their personal creative processes. One Night Stanzas is a safe, non-judgemental place to display your work, and I’m hoping that more poets, particularly youngsters, will feel they can take advantage of that as the blog becomes more established. I’m also looking for guest-bloggers to write articles on any aspect of poetry writing and publishing – age and experience are irrelevant, so get your articles over to me!

For more information on what I’m looking for, see here.

13. So what's on the horizon for Claire Askew?

Currently, I’m a bit stuck in a rut, as I’m looking for a new job – my tutoring contract is coming to an end and I’m wanting to move on. I’m after something in the arts or education, but it seems that part-time jobs of this type are hard to find. So if anyone’s looking for a talented young English Literature post grad to do non-soul-destroying work, please do get in touch!

Of course, employment issues aside, I am currently focussing on my MSc in Creative Writing, which I’m taking at the University of Edinburgh with a view to continuing to PhD level. I’m hoping that the MSc will help me to mould and polish the very rough first collection draft I’m currently cobbling together. I’m also entering my second year as Editor in Chief of Read This, and looking at ways to improve the magazine, up the print run and get it out to a wider audience. Basically, I’m always on the lookout for new projects and new things to get involved in. I’m seeing where 2009 will take me!

14. Oh, one final question. Curiosity totally got the better of me here. Your Deviant Art webpage is called 'The Obvious Child' – why so obvious?

That’s an easy one – 'The Obvious Child' is the name of a song from Paul Simon’s album The Rhythm of the Saints. Simon is one of my all-time favourite singer-songwriters and that track reminds me of my misspent youth! Although I have to say it’s rather fitting on another level – ‘obviously’ is probably the word I most overuse.


That was a very interesting interview (I knew it would be) and you can read more about Claire in the iCiNG interview, in Poet's Letter Magazine (which also has a good selection of her own poetry), on the London Poetry Festival website (did I forget to mention she was one of six poets in residence?) and in The Reading Room she explains her love of 'Jabberwocky'. Let me leave you with one of her poems, which reminds me of Blake's 'London'. Judge for yourself.

Under South Bridge

This is just one arch in an army
of many. Arthritic old lady of Edinburgh –
hunched over Cowgate, back bent
like a book-spine, like a toughened bow;
a sudden gap in the city's slack smile.

A bus swings through her like the tongue
of a bell, flinging peals of pigeons
into the cool air. A busker harvests her echo,
this bridge of sighs – slouching at the edge
of her boat-hull-black roar.

Stand in her rushing yawn yourself, or slide
between her jawbones in the tarmac's tread.
Graffiti – like a sandstone tattoo – taints
the upturned dish of dark: Fuck Westminster.
Jambos forever! SCOTIA! Poles Go Home.

Monday 20 October 2008

An interview with Claire Askew (part one)

A few days ago I told you about a new website I've discovered called One Night Stanzas which is the brainchild of a flame-haired, young lady called Claire Askew. As I said before, but it's worth mentioning again, this is a site devoted to encouraging young poets and is a cause I'm happy to champion. Anyway, I promised you an interview with this young lady and here it is.

Claire Askew was born in Northallerton, North Yorkshire in 1986. As soon as she learned how to read, literature became a big part of her life. She received the first credit for her own writing at the age of seven, when a short story she had written for a local fete won her a silver spoon of all things.

At nine years old, Claire’s family moved to Kelso, Scotland, and throughout her adolescent years, she continued to collect writing credits.

Claire's recently given an interview at iCiNG where you can find out about all her adventures since then, her time at university in Edinburgh, her numerous writing awards, Read This, the magazine she runs in addition to One Night Stanzas, the poetry group she felt she had to found or the kids she teaches. Beyond these basics, I thought I'd ask her a few in depth questions befitting such an interesting person.


1. Claire, from what I have read about you online it is clear you are passionate about poetry and yet your focus seems to be on educating those who are following in your wake. Why not concentrate on your own craft and let them find their own way?

It’s a combination of factors, really. First and foremost, I still see myself as a youngster (I’ll turn 23 in March), and although I am now beginning to get to know the ropes, not all that long ago I was still starting out – totally clueless, intimidated and with very little confidence in my own work. I remember how scary it is to be just starting out and not knowing whether or not you’re any good... the vast majority of the emails I get from people are just asking “do I actually have any talent at all? Is there any point in carrying on?” I clearly remember thinking like that, and so I reckon I can provide advice that older, more established poets can’t, because they’ve got too removed.

Something else that’s inspired me to try and offer help and advice to other poets is the sheer lack of both those things in the poetry world. I don’t think I’ll ever stop being shocked by some of the snobbery and nastiness you encounter from poets, critics and editors throughout the poetry world. Writers are disturbingly competitive – poets most of all, perhaps – and when you’re just starting out, this can be really, really off-putting. Young writers in particular are shunned and even ridiculed, and it’s really hard for them to find anyone who’ll just give them the information and guidance they need to improve their work and build up a profile for themselves. I experienced this myself up until relatively recently, and I’ve also heard about other people’s (sometimes terrible) experiences via the many letters and emails I’ve received during my time at Read This. That was another reason for setting up One Night Stanzas: since I set up Read This a year ago, I’ve had so many young poets contacting me, asking for advice on everything from just writing a good cover letter to knowing whether they should chuck in the towel or not. I realised pretty quickly that there was a need for a resource like One Night Stanzas, and so with my limited technical abilities, I eventually created one!

2. You've said that your father introduced you to poetry and remains your most honest and useful critic. I'm rather jealous because neither of my parents had any interest in literature. Where do you stand on the whole nature vs. nurture divide?

Neither of my parents are artistic people (though they’re both creative in their own way), but I do think that they’ve influenced my urge to write and do what I do. My father works in PR and writes brilliant journalistic copy, and my mother works in early-years childcare regulation and is passionate about helping and educating young people. Both of them are incredibly supportive of my creative endeavours, and they both give me feedback on my work when I need it... my Dad’s just rather more honest (and by that I mean more comfortable with nitpicking and pulling me up on mistakes!) than my Mum. Both encouraged me to read constantly as a small child, too, which I think really moulded my personality – like most writers, I am a complete bookworm to this day. Otherwise, I think there must just be creative genes in the family somewhere! My sister is an illustrator and my cousin, who’s around the same age, is training to be an art teacher; my Mum’s doing our family tree right now and she’s found an amateur poet a couple of generations back. A lot of the family are quite musical too, so I reckon I’ve just inherited the rogue gene!

3. In an interview the poet Philip Larkin was asked what he had learned from his study of Auden, Thomas, Yeats and Hardy, to which he responded, albeit by letter (since it was a postal interview): "Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets! You read them, and think, That’s marvellous, how is it done, could I do it? And that’s how you learn." How do you feel about that?

I think that’s absolutely true. I’m actually strongly against the way poetry is currently taught in schools, and to an extent, in universities, too (I currently work as a tutor of English at secondary school level and to be honest, I’m pretty strongly against the way everything’s taught in schools, but that’s another story). Most people’s first experience of poetry comes from school, and more often than not, they get a great classic poem plonked in front of them, and are told to “analyse” it. Students come away thinking that a poem is something ancient, irrelevant and difficult; something they need to chip away at before they can take away anything meaningful from it. As a result, some people spend their whole lives not knowing that a poem can just be enjoyed, and I think that goes a long way to explaining poetry’s dwindling audience.

The “study” of poetry can also be harmful to aspiring young poets. As Larkin says, you learn by reading and paying attention, not by criticising and analysing individual pieces until they lose all sense of unity. I’ve heard young poets say things like “I’m no good because don’t put enough hidden meanings in my poems!” – because they’ve been taught to approach poems as riddles to be solved in the classroom, they don’t actually know what writing them entails. So Larkin is absolutely right: poetry should not be studied, it should be absorbed. That’s a much more meaningful and powerful approach.

4. Throughout my life I have found a great reluctance amongst poets to explain their work. How is a young poet ever to learn if a poet keeps all his cards to his chest?

I’ve found the very same thing, and that’s another of the reasons for One Night Stanzas. As a young poet I was desperate for guidance, and because I was unable to find any, I made some silly mistakes and wasted valuable time. I found plenty of “get paid for your writing!”-style websites (I think there are even more of these now) which of course did way more harm than good, but try as I might, I couldn’t find much information or advice from real poets.

What young writers really need is guidance from those of us who are already in the fray, so to speak, and I don’t understand the general reluctance about providing that... you don’t necessarily have to explain or compromise your own work in order to do so. I think perhaps we’re all too concerned about our own reputations – I think we’re worried that young poets are loose cannons who don’t know ‘the etiquette’, who might one day show us up in some way. I also think that some established poets feel threatened by young talent – I’ve certainly encountered individuals who seem to actively discourage young, uncertain writers. However, it makes no difference really – young writers will always push on through, because they haven’t yet become jaded or tired; they’re still excited by hard facts of the words themselves, and they still see publication as an achievement to be proud of. It’s that attitude that I admire and want to encourage through One Night Stanzas.

5. You're quite well represented online – I had no problems finding a goodly number of your poems – and I could definitely see the Larkin in them (which you may take as a compliment) but how do you feel about the comparison? I'm thinking here of a poem like 'The Edible Woman' which begins:

      My grandmother baked
      the way other people self-medicate,
      love, see therapists, pray.

I absolutely love Philip Larkin’s work, so I’m very flattered indeed, and quite surprised! Now that you point it out, I do see the similarity, but I’ve never thought of Larkin as one of my major influences. I’ve read a great deal of his work, though, so he’s obviously made his mark. But I “see” other poets’ influence on my work much more clearly – I feel, for example, that Liz Lochhead and Edwin Morgan are floating around on the sideline of many of my poems, no doubt waiting to tell me off for pilfering their ideas!

6. You say elsewhere, and it's the advice that any writer worth his salt would give, that an upcoming poets should, if I can quote you: "Read. Read, read, read, read and then read some more. Reading other people’s poetry is the only way to make your own poetry better, and that’s something you should always be trying to do." There is however a lot of bad poetry online. Would the novice not do better to stick with established poets and aim high?

Absolutely. Someone left a comment at One Night Stanzas recently, which included the line “don’t mistake lack of talent for genius.” I think it’s very easy to do that when you’re young and inexperienced – easy to mistake being ‘different’ for being ‘good’ – though I really don’t like to throw terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ around (far too many bloggers and reviewers do, and it’s tantamount to snobbery). It’s also easy for young writers to get into the habit of reading very amateurish poems, because good quality published poetry is tricky and expensive to get hold of, whereas run-of-the-mill poems are ten-a-penny on blogs and social networking sites, and all accessible for free. I recently wrote an article at One Night Stanzas (If you don’t read, you will never be successful) on this very topic, and in it, I sum up my feelings on the matter:

It may be cheap and convenient, but avoid reading amateur poetry and try to read people who are published in some form or another. This may sound like snobbery, but it isn’t: if you want to get published, reading published poetry is the best way to understand what ‘makes it’, and the best way to turn your own poetry into something publishable.

7. You are not only a poet, you have worked in the theatre directing your own play no less and you have won a prize for your short fiction. In Poet's Letter Magazine you say "Obviously, I didn't just write poems…" Why 'obviously'?

I was referring to my very earliest ‘serious’ writing, which began in my last couple of years of high school. I think very few young writers begin by writing only poetry – perhaps mainly because you quickly become aware that poetry is not going to gain you any respect from your peers! Almost all the writers I know who are under the age of 20 write in other genres too, whether that means creating fiction or writing copy for the local paper; I recently spoke with a 19 year old poet who also has four separate novels on the go! Nowadays – with the exception of writing for One Night Stanzas – I focus solely on my poetry. I’ve dabbled, and I’ve discovered what it is I really want to write. I think that’s what you do when you’re young... I think that’s where the ‘obviously’ came from!

8. In the past there was a clear distinction between prose and poetry, one rhymed and the other didn't (okay that's a gross simplification), but do you think that we should stop making a distinction between the two and just accept the fact we're all 'writers'? I'm thinking particularly with the rise of flash fiction which is in many ways less demanding than poetry and yet satisfies some of the same needs and also the prevalent it's-a-poem-because-I-say-it-is school of thought.

I think many poets out there would love to be able to hide their true identities behind the benign, all-encompassing term that is ‘writer’, but I’m not one of them. It annoys me endlessly when (usually in workshops) people say, “that line reads too much like prose,” (because unless every poem you write reads like a page from The Lord of the Rings, does it really matter?), but at the same time, I think there is an argument for keeping the two genres separate. I think the mindset and creative processes of a poet are very different from those of a prose writer (which is why I always greatly admire anyone who can write both well), and the effort and skill required to build a good poem (or a good story) should be celebrated in its own right. Each is complex in its own way, so to chuck everything together feels a bit unjust. I’ve always been rather confused, however, about what exactly constitutes ‘prose poetry’, or about why people seem to want to lump flash fiction and poetry together. I’ve also been accused of writing poetry that is ‘just prose with line breaks’ before now, so perhaps I am not the best person to comment on the distinction between the two!


I'm going to break the interview here. In the second part Claire talks more about her sources of inspiration, the difficulties she has encountered trying to establish herself as a poet in Edinburgh and how you can help with her latest project.

In the meantime let me leave you with one of Claire's poems:

Built in

I am still in here, despite the siege. Still here,
behind the maze of scaffolding and duckboards –
business almost as usual, though I daren't leave.

I watch the men through the drawn blind like TV,
as they paint over the rotting window frames,
drink tea from flasks, sandblast, dig up pipes outside.

I keep the windows locked, just in case – paranoid,
I hide the jewellery box. On cold days, they slither
about on the slats, four floors up – a precarious ballet.

Some nights, I like to haul myself through
the wet window with a steaming cup, and sway
on the scaffold, scaring myself. I can choose –

to look out over the rainy slates, streetlights, the stretch
of council yards, or plunge. (Cobbles wink in the alley
below, its discarded mattress a festering fall-breaker.)

But it will be gone soon, this crows' nest, climbing-frame
for drunks, this cage. They will come in the morning,
wake me early, and pack it away, whistling.

Friday 17 October 2008

Why am I a poet?

A while ago Rachel Fox mentioned a new Scottish website that I should check out. Always keen to support my fellow countrymen and women I immediately clicked on the link. One Night Stanzas is a site committed to supporting up and coming poets. This excited me. There are loads of sites out there to which you can submit your poetry – who needs another one? – but there are not so many about poetry and when I was in my late teens and early twenties that was what I wanted to read. Poetry I had no problems finding even back then but I wanted to know more.

Anyway, I'll return to my miserable past in a minute. One Night Stanzas, is the brainchild of a flame-haired, young lady called Claire Askew. I decided to find out a little about her and I was delighted by what I discovered. And a little jealous, yes, if I'm honest with myself.

I have an interview coming up with her shortly but in the meantime she's kindly let me do a guest post on the theme Why Am I a Poet?

It's strange but I've never really sat down and asked myself that question before. Well, I have but I've never taken the question seriously. The thing is there are a lot of new people starting off and trying to find their feet. They have a lot of questions and I bet the majority are, as I was, surrounded by people who are incapable of providing answers.

One of the programmes we watch regularly is the Ri¢hes, a dark comedy-drama series about a group of travellers who are trying to pass themselves off as a rich American family. The youngest son likes to dress up in girls' clothes and, although not a major character, the drama does take time to watch him struggle with this. I would have no idea what to say to a son of mine if I found out he was a transvestite. It's not that I wouldn't want to be supportive but the bottom line is I don't get it. And I guess that's how my father felt when I told him I was a poet (not that I wrote poetry – major distinction here). He read what I showed him but he didn't get it. He just waited for me to get it out of my system. Only I never did.

In time he started to lose patience with me. I placed too much importance on it. It's fine to have a hobby, son, but it's a hobby, that's all it is. How could I explain to him that this was normal for me? I had a hard enough time coming to grips with that myself because no one around me was like me. So what did I do? I did what most people in my position do – I went underground. Every now and then I tried to pop my head up when new people appeared on the horizon but it was always much the same. Some were more tolerant than others but that was it. They'd put up with only so much.

To be fair I can't hold it against them because most of what I was writing wasn't very good but a bit of encouragement would have gone a long way. And that's what I think is so important about Claire's venture. It's young, only a few weeks old, but it is aimed at the young although none are turned away. Here's the link to my post again and after you've read it have a look at the rest of her site. I'll post our interview in a few days.

Wednesday 15 October 2008

Blog Action Day 2008: Poverty

I typed "starving artist" into Google and got 632,000 hits; "starving poet" got me another 3,500. When I was a kid I was frequently 'starving' and would beg my parents for food only to be reminded that I had no idea what 'starving' meant. And they were right. I had no idea. And this was a long time before I became a poet and, to my shame, I have never had to go hungry for my art unlike many before me.

As a writer I value words and yet at the same time, without thinking very much about it, I also devalue them. I told my mum I was 'starving' but I meant I was hungry. And, if I'm being honest, I probably wasn't even that hungry. I wasn't a greedy child and I certainly was never a fat child, but I had gotten used to – been allowed to get used to – a certain lifestyle. My parents came from a generation where it was an important thing to be seen feeding your family and, kudos to Mum and Dad, they never had cause to hang their heads in shame. Even when I'd flown the coop when they turned up to visit they brought food.

Not every child has it so good. And it's easy to point the finger at the parents but then you look at where you're pointing and your finger curls up and hides in the palm of your hand.

All my life I've been presented with images of starving black children in countries I'd never heard of the week before. Biafra was the first one I remember around about 1967 and I remember the playground gags too that got recycled over the years depending on which African country was in need that year. And that's what it felt like. Whose turn is it now?

The thing is, now I'm older I realise that the famines mostly had little to do with a lack of resources but a complete and total mismanagement of those resources. The world has plenty of money. It's just spending it on the wrong things. Millions gets spent on aid to Africa but then they pay millions in interest payments on their bank loans, that is, when they're not off paying for freedom fighters.

Now, I don't know about you, but I've never had a head for economics but here is a little film entitled The Luckiest Nut in the World, which, in 8 minutes, explains the whole thing … with songs.

If that has caught your imagination then there is an interesting site – maybe sobering would be a better word – called Global Issues from which I extracted the following two tables:

Global Priority$U.S. Billions
Cosmetics in the United States8
Ice cream in Europe11
Perfumes in Europe and the United States12
Pet foods in Europe and the United States17
Business entertainment in Japan35
Cigarettes in Europe50
Alcoholic drinks in Europe105
Narcotics drugs in the world400
Military spending in the world780

And compare that to what was estimated as additional costs to achieve universal access to basic social services in all developing countries:

Global Priority$U.S. Billions
Basic education for all6
Water and sanitation for all9
Reproductive health for all women12
Basic health and nutrition13

Now, any one of those 8 year-olds who were with me in the schoolyard cracking jokes comparing matchstick with Biafrans could do the sums and we weren't the brightest bunch.

Are we all stupid or something? Er, yeah. I'm sure the IMF's answer would be, "Well, things are never as simple as that…" But they are. They so are.

The Blog Action Day website has this to say:

What Can One Person Do?

Poverty is not only a pressing issue, it is a complex one. It's easy to think that there isn’t much an individual can do. Fortunately this isn’t the case at all. With activities ranging from advocacy and professional contribution to charity and financing, there are in fact many ways that we can act.

You can find a range of resources about poverty, about what the average person can do as well as dozens of post suggestions and ideas in our Resources section.

Here's the link.

Don't be stupid. Have a look.

Monday 13 October 2008

Wise words of wisdom

Me today (yes, I always look that annoyed)

I'm feeling my age. Actually I'm feeling someone else's age, a guy of about eighty-four. Suffice to say I'm getting to the age where I'm starting to see how well I might measure up to that eighty-four year-old in other ways. Wisdom and age are supposed to go hand-in-fist. So I've been told. I'm still waiting. In the meantime I make do with intelligence. Of course being intelligent – which I think is different from being 'clever' – doesn't mean you'll automatically become wise.

The poetry I remember growing up with, and this is well before I discovered Larkin as a teenager, were these little balls of wisdom, home truths, important truths and I expect that's why they've lasted. They were like bible verses and the thing I liked about the bible was that in the main I was only ever asked to digest a couple of verses at a time and a lot of them were like tiny poems, little nuggets of truth. I don't think it's a coincidence that I write the kind of poetry I do; we work with what we have.

But the bible was written by wise men and poetry was written by old buggers – I've seen photos of them and they were all ancient – so what business did I have trying to make out like I had something to say? The thing I remember as a kid starting off is that I did believe I had access to that kind of wisdom. I could feel it milling around inside me. It was getting to grips with it that was the problem. You see being wise is all well and good but communicating that wisdom is another kettle of fish completely. Every time I put my pen to paper it refused to be the conduit of all my wise words. The occasional bit of cleverness would leak out onto the page but that was about it.

I think wisdom is one of those things like magic. Magicians tend to keep schtum about how they do their tricks, the good ones anyway. Most magic, the kind that doesn't depend on huge apparatuses, is within the capabilities of you or me; it's sleight of hand and a lot of practice. And I guess that's all poetry is when you get down to it. Everyone has poetry within themselves but not everyone can get it out.

Anyway, if you'd like to read a bit more about what I think about wisdom and poetry have a look at my guest post on Jasmin's Heart. Jasko very kindly asked me if I'd contribute a few poems and write a few words to introduce them. So I did. And then I wrote this to set up the introduction. I think I just like to hear the sound of my own voice.

Sunday 12 October 2008

What it means to be a writer

Me at about 24 years of age

I don't really do the biography thing very often. I don't think I'm an especially interesting guy. I keep wishing I could come up with witty anecdotes like Ken Armstrong but I guess I've either lived a very boring life or – and this is more likely the case – I have a very bad memory.

What I do remember is writing. I remember desks I've written on and the machines I've worked on. I remember the neck pain, the wrist and shoulder pain. I remember getting cramp in my leg so bad that I thought it had been broken somewhere in the past and had only just decided to start to hurt. I remember going out of my way to get fancy typing paper in a wee shop down the harbour. I remember sending my poems to Philip Larkin when I was sixteen and getting a form letter back from his secretary. What I remember is a life that always had writing in it even if it didn't necessarily revolve around writing.

For so many of those years I struggled with identifying myself as a writer, well, a poet, since all I'd written was poetry and all I expected I'd ever write was poetry. I wanted to look in the mirror and see a poet and believe that what I was seeing was a poet but for so long I felt I was playing at it all.

Anyway, I'm not going to tell you all about it here. If you want to find out a bit more then have a look at my guest post on A Book Blogger's Diary entitled, What it means to be a writer. Some of the stuff will be familiar to regular visitors but hopefully not all; I've only got so many wise words of wisdom to pass on I'm afraid. I wrote it just after a couple of people called my poetry 'extraordinary' and I was feeling very conscious of how non-extraordinary I am.

Wednesday 8 October 2008

The last three books

At the end of the 1960 film adaptation of H. G. Wells' The Time Machine, the time traveller decides to return to the future one would imagine to remain. Seeing that he has left, his best friend David Filby and the housekeeper Mrs Watchett note that he had taken three books from the shelves in his drawing room. Filby wonders out loud: "Which three books would you have taken?" but we never get an answer. It's a variation on the Desert Island Discs scenario or the end of The Day After Tomorrow where they're burning books to keep warm and Jeremy ends up at the end of the film clinging to a Gutenberg Bible in the passenger cabin of a helicopter.

The quantities may vary but the question remains the same: If, for some strange reason, you find yourself on a spaceship leaving Earth and you're only being allowed to take three books, what would you take?

I could lump for The Bible, the Complete Works of Shakespeare and the Oxford English Dictionary. I wouldn't complain if that's what I was forced to take. That's what Billy Connolly opted for and if it's good enough for the Big Yin then it's good enough for me.

Actually when you look at it, they're not really three books. The Bible consists of a minimum of sixty-six books (Roman Catholics get an extra baker's-dozen), the general consensus is that Shakespeare wrote thirty-seven plays not counting his other works and there are twenty volumes to the complete Oxford English Dictionary.

I've never actually read the whole Bible – chunks of it, yes – but I'd hate if was landed with The King James or The Douay version. I could tolerate a modern translation, perhaps The Good News version or the Jerusalem Bible, at least then the verses would be less familiar to me.

I've seen all the key Shakespeare plays bar Othello for some reason – thank you BBC – but there are a few of the minor ones that have got by me and most of the histories I have to confess. But even the ones I know well are so dense that I could read them for years on end. Besides we could put on little plays in the mess hall to entertain the crew.

And, those of you who have been with me from the start of this blog will be well aware of my fondness for dictionaries. You can find a list of those I currently own here. I could easily sit and read a dictionary like a book. I have done. Many times. There's actually something quite relaxing about words just on their own, no context to muck them up or get in the road.

To my mind, where these three books win out is their size; you get an awful lot of information and, from a writer's perspective, they're great reference material.

But, that's if three books were foisted upon me. What if I could choose three myself? This is not about picking my three favourite books. That would be a task and a half in itself. What I'm looking for here are books that could be read and reread and enjoyed over an extended period of time. And I'm going to use the same logic Connolly did.

My first choice would be Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopaedia. The copy I had as a kid is long gone and I've bitterly regretted not sticking the ten volumes in the back of the van when we were clearing out my mum's house but there you go. A few years later my wife was passing a second-hand shop when she noticed a set in the window and, the dear that she is, she lugged the whole lot home on the bus. It's sitting in a glass bookcase in front of me as I write this and, although I hardly ever open it, there's a great sense of comfort having the books there.

The books are so out-of-date that it's not true but I spent hours upon hours pawing through them when I was young. They are pure, concentrated nostalgia. They present a world that was falling to pieces even as I was being born. The sections on 'Things to Make and Do' would be invaluable for the children that would be born on the trip. With limited resources they'd need to be able to make something out of next-to-nothing and that's the kind of thing the book contains.

My next choice would be (no big surprises here) the complete works of Samuel Beckett, the four-volume Samuel Beckett: The Grove Centenary Edition. These are texts you could spend a lifetime on. Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time will know how much I've been affected by this guy. Nuff said.

My last book – again I'm cheating – would be Rene Magritte: Catalogue Raisonne, a five volume work presenting an authoritative survey of the artist's œuvre. I saw a copy once in the Mitchell Library and never realised the man had produced so much art. I never tire of looking at Magritte's work. I make no claims to understanding it and I've never worried particularly why I like it. Technically he's quite basic which I don't mind. I think I'm more interested in the image than the art. He also presents simple pictures, just two or three items – a chair, a tuba and a torso or something like that – and leaves the rest to you.

For a guy whose own work revolves around reason you might find this an interesting choice but there's meaning to be found in everything and where's there's none we make something up. That's what we do, we make things make sense. I love that about people. It's why I chose the inkblot as my logo, it symbolises everything I write about. It could have been a star system that looks like a crab or a fluffy cloud that looks like … well, with Magritte the fluffy cloud looks exactly like what he wants it to. There's something about that that quite delights me.

So, there are my choices. No doubt others among you will have a few of your own.

Sunday 5 October 2008

An interview with Anthony Barnett

In March 2007, while in his sixties, Anthony James Barnett, a Staffordshire lad, published his first novel, Without Reproach. He's by no means the oldest first timer – Millard Kaufman published Bowl of Cherries when he was ninety-two – but this still begs the question: how old is too old?

In an article in The Independent in 2006, literary agent Anthony Lownie had this to say:

"If you are an actress from EastEnders or a weathergirl then you are going to draw more attention for your book that if you are a 75-year-old pensioner from Bournemouth. Publishers are keen on young authors who will do lots of promotion themselves, or journalists who will get a lot of media coverage or famous people who know other famous people. It's all about promoting a package." – Happy endings for would-be novelists

The thing is, it's easy to read stuff like that and allow yourself to be put off. Back in 2006 Tony Barnett had retired to Spain where they probably have to order The Independent in especially. From what I've read about him – and he is very active online – I don't really think he would've paid a blind bit of attention to that article. After all in 1985, more than a few years after leaving school, he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Of course, things are never quite that simple. If I can get Tony to explain:

1. You began attempting to get your writing published in 1990 at, if I've done my sums right, the ripe old age of forty-three. I'm curious why you left it so late, was it choice or circumstance?
I’ve always had an interest in writing; it was like a worm, eating away at me for years. I started tentative scribbling many years, ago, in my twenties, but it sort of fell by the wayside. I can think of all sorts of reasons why I didn’t carry it through: bringing up kids, working too many long hours, working weekends, but they’re all excuses.

I’d also like to point out to other older writers that I believe age can actually be an advantage when writing. If you have no experience of life, then your writing can only be by second-hand experience. I think it was Phyllis Whitney, who commented that the average age of first time authors was sixty!

Indeed, in her book, Guide to Fiction Writing, Whitney wrote, “Never mind the rejections, the discouragement, the voices of ridicule…Work and wait and learn, and that train will come by. If you give up, you’ll never have a chance to climb aboard.”

2. You began with a novel. That seems like jumping into the deep end. Looking back was it?
Absolutely. It’s too much to chew on. I think writing short stories hones your writing skills, brings the same satisfaction of seeing your work published and isn’t such a huge investment of time. To see a novel gathering dust is quite discouraging.

3. Your first published work appeared – unusually – in My Weekly; in fact you became such a regular contributor that they arranged a meeting with you in Manchester. Can you explain how that came about?
Wow! You’ve really done your homework. I chose, My Weekly, simply because my wife read it, and I thought, “I can do that.” The editors seemed to like my style and eventually suggested a meeting to discuss where my stories might head. They began sending me pictures, to write stories around.

4. I would imagine the work was quite formulaic. Would you agree?
Not exactly writing to formula, although it’s certainly true that each magazine has its own criteria for stories which sometimes takes a while to unravel. The thing that I found more difficult was the restrictive nature of the work; certain subjects were taboo, some words were definitely out, even place settings were dodgy.

I wrote one story set in Spain. The editors of My Weekly thought the readers were not yet ready for such an ‘exotic’ setting! I changed the setting to be Scotland and it was accepted!

However, I understand the magazine has undergone a complete transformation since, so I’ve no idea what criteria they’re setting now. I believe it’s far more relaxed.

For those interested here are the current guideline for submitting to that mag.

5. Was your work published in any other magazines or periodicals during this time?
Oh, certainly! My work was available in Bella, Woman’s Weekly, Chat, anywhere that would take my stories. In fact, these mags used to be the industry best payers. If I were mercenary I’d be concentrating on those outlets, but I no longer want that route.

6. After several years you found you weren't enjoying writing to order. Apart from the commercial work, were you also writing for yourself?
No. I think that may have been the problem. I was becoming a hack. I decided to pull out eventually – but I’m glad of the experience.

7. What do you think you learned from this kind of work?
I think I learned how to sharpen my work, to write in plain language. I learned how to take the simple things of life and raise their importance; found how to make everyday events emotive. One of the nicest compliments I had was from a reader who contacted the editors telling them that my stories made her cry.

8. In the early nineties the time felt right to try another novel, which you worked on for about seven years. Can you explain the genesis of the book?
I think it was because someone received an unexpected inheritance and it got me wondering what the ultimate consequence might be, and I sort of worked around that.

9. Did you have a specific market in mind when you began your book?
No. I had a story to tell, and let it take its course, which is probably what most writers do.

10. You have said you set out to write a mystery and yet because it's been miscategorised on sites like Amazon as romantic fiction – does this worry you?
I don’t think Amazon categorised it that way. I think the publishers slotted it into that category. It doesn’t bother me either way. I have no hang-ups. I know from experience that women buy far more books than men, so it might work out for the best.

11. The book was also misrepresented in the press garnering headlines such as "Grandfather of Eight Pens Steamy Novel" and yet you're getting sales because of this. This sounds like a bit of a two-edged sword: how do you feel about it?
Any publicity is great; let them write as much as what they want – keep churning it out. In fact, I’m wondering about taking it on board and pushing the issue. It does have ‘steam’, but only after the halfway point. Maybe I’ll start the sequel with steam. They say sex sells.

12. This reminds me of the author Peter Benchley. When he was touting Jaws he was persuaded to spice up the book with a sex scene and yet that was the first thing Spielberg dropped when he adapted the book preferring to go for more subtle sexual undertones. Any thoughts?
I hope Spielberg has the same problem with my book!

If sex is put into a work just for effect, then it reads [as] awkward and artificial. The steam in my book happens because it’s appropriate. I hope it reads [as] natural. I can’t ever see me writing it ‘just because’, though. It has to be justified.

13. How hard was it for you, a man in his late fifties when you were writing this, to get inside the head of your twenty year-old heroine?
I grew up with two elder sisters and their friends constantly around, I’ve had two wives, four daughters and three granddaughters. After the split with my first wife, I took custody of my young teenage daughters with their growing problems. I think I probably have a unique insight into how women think and behave.

14. You list your favourite authors as Ian Rankin, Penny Vincenzi, Gerald Seymour, Christina Jones – an odd combination, if you don't mind me saying so. Do you try and mesh a similar variety of styles in your novel?
I enjoy good stories no matter what the style or gender. The Vincenzi and Jones novels were my wife’s, and having nothing else to read, I tried them, and found I appreciated them.

When writing, it’s almost impossible not to be influenced by what you’ve read, but I don’t think any author deliberately ‘meshes’ styles. Writing style is what develops due to experience.

15. Would you compare yourself to any author? When I think of mystery writers the likes of Agatha Christie come to mind.
I would hate to compare myself to any really successful writer. It would be arrogant to think I could be judged alongside them. People such as Christie had so much experience, so much energy it would be conceited to even think it. I write in my own style, my own way. If people like my work, I’m happy.

I once read that all artists are craftsmen, but not all craftsmen, artists.

Writing is a craft; when up to publication standard it can be said to be art, but not all art ends up a masterpiece. I tell tales, I don’t produce masterpieces. Some writers rise beyond that level. They’re the ones who’re remembered.

16. You mix with several authors who have now retired to Spain and have had their first books published in the past year or so: Jill Lanchbery (A Bucket of Ashes); Mike Hillier (The Eighth Child); Agnes Hall (The Canvas Bag) and Keith Geddes (Please Sir There's A Snake In The Art Room). Is it something in the water?
Once again, congratulations on your research. We are all members of the same writing group. I suppose we encourage each other. Why we all migrated to the area? I have no idea.

17. The publisher is the same in each case, Libros International, the same as yours – tell me a bit about them.
Libros International is a new publishing house. Jill Lanchbery landed a contract with them and persuaded us to submit our work to them, so I suppose we must all blame Jill. It’s not a bad idea to get in on the ground floor with a new publisher though, there’s a possibility that if they grow, you might grow with them. The downside is they have no publicity budget or distribution network. You make your choice and go with the flow.

However, they’ve placed my novel on loads of online sites worldwide. I’ve seen my book for sale in the USA, UK, Germany, Canada, France, Sweden, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India, Japan and China.

18. You say you hate writing but you love having written. Explain.
I think writing can be painful at times. It’s certainly hard work. I like to have the finished piece in my hand, but the process of getting there isn’t always smooth.

19. What do you find hardest and how do you work round or through it?
I sometimes find I’m writing myself into the story and I hate that. I have to re-write the whole damn thing. Sometimes I simply can’t get a scene to work, and I might spend days working around it. Writing can be hard mentally. I tend to write emotively, and it can be draining.

20. Radio presenter, Pauline McGough, has recorded a collection of your short stories for an audio CD, to be released later this year. Tell me about how this came about?
I met Pauline’s husband whilst playing pool. She was interested in the fact that I was a writer, asked to see some of my work, and offered to record a collection. I think it’s probably because she wanted to expand her horizons and saw me as an opportunity. She originally produced the stories on CD, but also set up Read2me. We both believe it to be an easier option than distributing CD’s so won’t be offering the CD recordings.
Some of the stories are already available individually here:

21. So what now? I believe you're working on another novel.
Well, I’m about two thirds through. However, I haven’t written much for a while; I’m so involved with publicity it’s ridiculous. Promotion is very time-consuming.

So what's Without Reproach all about?

Jenny, a young English woman inherits a half-share in a hacienda and riding school from the Spanish artist, Juan García, a man she has never met, never even heard of and to whom she is not related. The other beneficiary is Juan's half- brother, Eduardo, who imagines her to be nothing more than a gold- digger. Jenny’s problems escalate when she arrives at the hacienda only to discover certain parts of the villa are strangely familiar to her even though she is sure she has never been there before. The story hinges on her ordeal of finding what has gone on and why, and of fighting off Eduardo who wants the inheritance for himself.

You can read more about it on his website here and here and you might also be interested in a radio interview here.

Wednesday 1 October 2008

1001 poems

Click on image to enlarge

I've never been one for anniversaries, for looking back, peering over the top of the pink-tinted glasses, sighing in an affected manner and wishing I'd done things even a little differently. Perhaps that's come about because I find I have more regrets than whatever the opposite of 'regrets' is. I guess I don't know that one because I don't get to use it very often. That said I've always imagined myself in my old age shuffling out of the dark, like Krapp (but without the unfashionable pointy white shoes), thumbing through my great big volume of poems and wallowing in some scrap of mediocre love poetry. And it is a great big volume of poetry, a four-ring, A4 binder three inches thick. If I were to hit you over the head with it it'd do you some serious damage.

I started the volume in 1977 with my 453rd poem, my first 'adult' poem, 'adult' as in grownup not risqué, and in July 2008 I finally reached no. 1000. Thirty-one years to write 547 poems. Yay me. I have no idea if that's good or what. The thing is, when you look back, there are actually several years when I wrote nothing or next-to-nothing. I printed them into a graph, the graph you'll find at the top of this blog, and you'll see … well I'm not actually sure what you'll see or what it proves. That is what it is.

What I can say is that the poems written in 1991 really belong to earlier years. Being unable to write I went back to my notebooks and tidied up a few poems to try and get my juices flowing but the real truth is that I didn’t have two poetic ideas to rub together between 1990 and 1993 inclusive. I really thought that was me, done, finito. It was in 1993 I wrote Living with the Truth, again just something to do to try and get started again. Who in their right mind would deliberately sit down to write a novel after a) such a long dry spell and b) never having written anything bar poetry since he was a kid?

I like my red folder. I didn't mention before but it's red, not quite fire-engine red but in that ballpark. Amazingly the spine hasn't broken nor has the metal thing with the rings come off. I like picking it up to put in a new poem; it has heft. I like writing a new poem. You'd think by now that it would be no big deal but there are some things in life that are as good now as when I was a kid: I still get a kick out of lightning storms and chippy chips; never had them both at the same time though.

I always dreamed of getting to 1000 poems. I'm not sure what I expected to find or feel when I got here. No, 'dream' is too strong a word. I didn't dream about writing poem no. 1000. I just kept writing. There were times in 'the wilderness years' when I never thought I'd make it but I suppose that's the thing about the future, you have no idea what's going to happen. I'm convinced my current novel is going to be the one to get the better of me but then I was pretty damn sure I'd never finish the last one and don't get me started on the one before that. God Almighty!

I wrote a thousand poems. What does that say about me? What is it about us that demands that things mean something? I'm a poet, I really should be able to answer that one. I've spent my entire life looking for meaning in the oddest places even down the back of the settee. A lot of people think poetry is a waste of time. I've certainly wasted a lot of my time writing poems. Well, when you do the sums, actually not that much time at all; I'll have spent more time peeing. All of which was going though my mind when I actually sat down and wrote my one-thousandth poem.

In fact my last few poems have all been about the nature of poetry. I've been doing this for donkey's years and what exactly have I been doing? Is poetry a waste of time? Have I wasted my time being a poet? I decided to write about it:


The function of
this poem is
to use up time.
There is no more.

You should leave now.
It will do you
no good to stay.

I have captured
your time in this
poem. It is
now lost to you.

You should leave now.
It will do you
no good to stay.

This is my sole
function. It is
not open to

You should leave now.
It will do you
no good to stay.

I cannot be
more than you see.
I cannot add
meaning to loss.

You should leave now.
It will do you
no good to stay.

You should leave now.
It will do you
no good to stay.

Friday, 11 July 2008

So what do you do once you've written a thousand poems? You just keep going. There's nowhere else to go. The thing is now I've got that out of my system where now? Two thousand? Yeah, right. One thousand four hundred and fifty-three – a thousand grow-up poems – that might be do-able. When I was a teenager I used to look forward to reaching benchmarks, 18, 21, 30 even 40 but since then I'm not looked forward quite so much and certainly not with any great enthusiasm:

FAILING           1001

My mother taught me
           how to be old.
I watched her falter
           then fail and fall.

At least she tried to
           teach me but what
           did I care to know
           about such things?

Now I'm old myself
           I wish I'd paid
           attention; I'm not
           sure I ache right.

I am sure she'd have
           something to say
           about my limp, how
           I hold my hip

           and her 'stupid cough'
           I can't get right.
I must be such a

Saturday, 02 August 2008

Sad git getting ain't I? And, for the record, I don't have a bad hip and a 'stupid cough'. My mother had both and it was her that called her cough 'stupid', not me. I have developed a bit of a limp though recently; haven't quite got it mastered yet.

Of course there are writers who at my age had written more but I've also written more than some writers did ever, Larkin, for example. Quantity is not everything. That said, none of us knows how long we've got. I'm not so sure if I'd taken a different path I'd have written any more than I have. I'd likely be better known and have more stuff in print but I can catch up there. I've never stopped writing. Correction, I've never stopped being a writer. The chart shows that there have been times when I've been unable to write but life made a lot less sense at those times.

Who am I kidding … life's never made any sense and Christ knows if any of my poems do. (Please feel free to rush to my defence at this point and do try to form an orderly queue).

Was a thousand poems a goal or a dream? I think if it had mattered to me it could fit under either heading and I could present a convincing argument. The fact is, it was not something I worked towards. If anything it was an obstacle to overcome.

I looked up "writer goals" on Google as, as you would expect, I got millions of hits but I picked this one almost at random:

1. Set goals: Let's face it, goal setting has a bad rap in our culture. It's linked with New Year's resolutions, diets and promises made to our mothers - in other words, hard to follow, easy to break. Another way to fail.

But we all need a measuring stick - a way to check in with ourselves and take honest stock of what we've done and what we plan to do next. If you think back on the main accomplishments of your life, they were probably begun with a specific plan and a systematic method that lead to completion. Write down your goals and make them realistic, measurable and concrete. Commit to big, ambitious, five-year goals and practical, doable goals such as tidying your desk every night. Once you've committed to your goals, post them in places where you'll see them often. – Five must-dos for every writer

I'm not sure that I agree with all of this but I've never been fond of the whole motivational speaker thing. I think if I had a list of targets, or even a target I'd actually be discouraged. The target would become my reason for writing whereas I've always seen writing as its own end. Okay, when I'm working on a novel. I do check the word count obsessively but I'm always looking back at what I've done. I never sit down and say I have to write a thousand words today or even five hundred. I might reach that target and say to myself, well, that's me done my allotted writing today. And that's not how I write. I can only imagine the depression I could sink into if I attempted NaNoWriMo. Just the thought of it is depressing and I need no help in that direction.

Do I have a goal right now? Yes, several. I need to be better at keeping up with my submissions. I need to find time to read more. I need to make time to do a final edit of Stranger than Fiction. I need to keep up with my schedule for blogging. And I need to finish my current novel. And I need not to get down when I don't get everything done because I'm simply not in control of every aspect of my life. Some of these are ongoing goals; others will get closed off and replaced by other tasks. But I don't have dates and quantities attached to any of these. Really most of these are things I keep at the forefront of my mind, things not to forget rather than goals or targets in any formal sense.

Of course everyone is different but I think what I'm saying is that, if you keep working steadily (yes, I suppose that could be regarded as a goal in itself) you will accumulate a substantial amount of work in time. As for whether you're granted that time… Ah, that none of us knows.

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