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Sunday 30 September 2012

Is writing a hobby?


A hobby is a defiance of the contemporary. It is an assertion of those permanent values which the momentary eddies of social evolution have contravened or overlooked. If this is true, then we may also say that every hobbyist is inherently a radical, and that his tribe is inherently a minority.Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac: With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River

We Brits love our hobbies. For years at the end on my CV I included a few at the end. After a while, though, I changed the heading from ‘Hobbies’ to ‘Interests’ as I felt it was a bit more adult, as if hobbies were for kids. There was a programme on the TV a while back talking about some of the weird and wonderful hobbies the British have engaged in over the years and how they have changed. Hobbies started off being group activities often revolving around people’s places of employment (e.g. the work football team or brass band) and then, because of the lack of money during the two world wars, crafts became increasingly popular (making things with matchsticks and the like). Collecting has always been quintessentially British and not just sensible things like cigarette cards or coins; cheese labels was what one woman was into and she turned it into quite a profitable wee business. An alternative to collecting physical objects was collecting experiences: hence the rise of train spotting, bird watching and photography. In my time I have collected stamps, coins, toy cars, rocks, fossils, comics, bubblegum cards and I still collect music like it’s going out of fashion. But is writing a hobby?

Okay, so what exactly is a hobby?

A hobby is a regular activity or interest that is undertaken for pleasure, typically done during one's leisure time. Examples of hobbies include collecting, creative and artistic pursuits, making, tinkering, sports and adult education. Engaging in a hobby can lead to acquiring substantial skill, knowledge and experience. People also enjoy participating in competitive hobbies such as athletics, hockey, curling, golf, bowling and tennis.

Generally speaking, the person who engages in an activity for fun, not remuneration, is called an amateur (or hobbyist), as distinct from a professional. – Wikipedia

I actually define ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ slightly differently: an amateur is someone who does something because he loves doing it whereas a professional does something because he has to even when he doesn’t feel like it. Most writers, even those who get paid (whether in cash or in kind) are amateurs. People don’t go to work in a cannery or down the pit for the love of it. It’s an emotive word, nevertheless, as amateurs are often looked down on: Oh, he’s a weekend such-and-such. The film director, John Waters, says it all when he wrote in Role Models: “The only insult I've ever received in my adult life was when someone asked me, ‘Do you have a hobby?’ A HOBBY?! DO I LOOK LIKE A FUCKING DABBLER?!”

An amateur (French amateur "lover of", from Old French and ultimately from Latin amatorem nom. amator, "lover") is generally considered a person attached to a particular pursuit, study, or science, without pay and often without formal training. Amateurism can be seen in both a negative and positive light. Since amateurs often do not have formal training, some amateur work may be considered sub-par. – Wikipedia

A professional is a person who is paid to undertake a specialized set of tasks and to complete them for a fee.

The main criteria for a professional include the following:

  1. Expert and specialized knowledge in field which one is practicing professionally.
  2. Excellent manual/practical and literary skills in relation to profession.
  3. High quality work in (examples): creations, products, services, presentations, consultancy, primary/other research, administrative, marketing, photography or other work endeavours.
  4. A high standard of professional ethics, behaviour and work activities while carrying out one's profession (as an employee, self-employed person, career, enterprise, business, company, or partnership/associate/colleague, etc.). The professional owes a higher duty to a client, often a privilege of confidentiality, as well as a duty not to abandon the client just because he or she may not be able to pay or remunerate the professional. Often the professional is required to put the interest of the client ahead of his own interests.
  5. Reasonable work morale and motivation. Having interest and desire to do a job well as holding positive attitude towards the profession are important elements in attaining a high level of professionalism.
  6. Appropriate treatment of relationships with colleagues. Consideration should be shown to elderly, junior or inexperienced colleagues, as well as those with special needs. An example must be set to perpetuate the attitude of one's business without doing it harm.
  7. A professional is an expert who is a master in a specific field. – Wikipedia

For me the key difference is the existence of a customer. A novel is a one off. It could reasonably be referred to as custom-made. As it’s also a work of art the customer often isn’t too specific about what he requires but sometimes he is: “There’s this new blockbuster coming out and we require a novelisation. This is when it needs to be completed, this is the word count and this is what we’re willing to pay for it. Oh, and it’s aimed at the YA market so watch the language. Do you want the job?” Usually an author produces a book that he thinks will meet a demand and then sees if he can get someone to invest in it (hopefully) without demanding much in the way of rewrites.

Does the fact that you can get paid for what you produce make you a professional? I got paid £1.50 for a poem that was published in 1979 and for many years that was the grand sum that I had earned from my writing. So that makes me a professional writer, right? Nah. I write what I want when I want. I have never had to rely on my writing to put food on the table. In an extremely forthright article over at terribleminds I read this:

You cannot maintain the illusion of writing being this precious act when you’re working to make a living wage. I mean, I guess you can if you’re Stephen King. But me? And you? This illusion is dismembered by the reaper’s scythe. Writing is a job. A wake-up-at-the-perineum-of-dawn-and-churn-out-a-fast-two-thousand-words job. The kind of job where, if you don’t write, you don’t get paid, and if you don’t get paid, you will die in a gutter wearing only that one pair of pants you own.

Chuck Wendig describes himself as “a novelist, a screenwriter, and a freelance ChuckWendigpenmonkey.” He also does some game design on the side.

I cannot imagine being able to do that. That’s scary stuff. On the subject of linking writing and commerce he writes:

There’s a whole seedy sub-layer to being a pro-writer that, for some reason, writers don’t want to deal with. Fuck that. That’s like owning a toilet and not knowing how to unclog it. Elves don’t come and handle it, for Chrissakes. This is your job. Keyword: job.

Bottom line: I am not a jobbing author. Which makes me an amateur and amateurs can’t be professional, right? What’s the only thing that separates amateurs and professionals? The moolah. Amateurs can behave in a professional manner. What do you need to be a professional table tennis player? A table, a paddle and a ball. And what’s that going to set you back? Unless you want a table made out of concrete (seriously, they do them) you could buy a top of the range table for £800. A paddle? £240 max. Balls? You could pick up a bucket load for £60. So we’re not talking about a fortune. What does Stephen King write on? The web site allows you to take a virtual tour of his office. There, on his virtual desk, you'll see an iMAC computer. So one would assume he uses an iMAC in real life, too, not that it matters. You get the idea. The basic requirements to be any kind of writer will not set you back more than a few hundred quid tops. My mum wrote in my sister’s old school jotters with a Bic.

But what about the training? Stephen King graduated from the University of Maine at Orono in 1970, with a B.A. in English and qualified to teach on the high school level. He learned to write by doing. To the best of my knowledge The University of East Anglia's Creative Writing Course , which was founded by Sir Malcolm Bradbury and Sir Angus Wilson that very same year, was the first of its kind in the UK. Ian McEwan was the first applicant as I remember it. In a radio interview on Radio 4 in 2010 he had this to say:

I have fought all my life—forty years in fact—against the PR machinery of UEA which makes me out to be the product of a creative writing course. I am nothing of the kind.

In the interview both McEwan and Tobias Hill emphasise the benefit of reading and, to be blunt, no one needs to go to university to read good books. But can writing be taught? Certain aspects can and are. A sentence begins with a capital letter, ends with a full stop and must contain at least a noun and a verb. We get that in primary school. Writing, like any form of art, is not without its techniques, but there’s also learning on the job. And that can’t be discounted. An MA in Creative Writing is referred to the world over as a “professional qualification” but just because you have a Degree in Psychology does not make you a psychologist. Why would a writing degree make you a writer?

Very few writers make a living solely from writing. In the fall of 1971, Stephen began teaching high school English classes at Hampden Academy. It wasn’t until the spring of 1973 that his novel Carrie was accepted for publication. Likewise William McIlvanney worked as an English teacher between 1960 and 1975 and only could afford to write fulltime after Docherty was published; it was his third novel. Joanna Trollope worked as an English teacher for twelve years. Muriel Spark worked as an English teacher and a secretary. In 1996, while J K Rowling was working as a French teacher in Edinburgh, Bloomsbury published Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone; she’d also worked as an English teacher in Portugal and a secretary at various firms. I could go on and on. These were all amateur writers with professional work ethics.

kaysextonLet me tell you about Kay Sexton. Actually I’ll let her tell you. This is from her website:

Kay Sexton's fiction has been chosen for over forty anthologies and been broadcast on Radio 4. Her unpublished novel, Gatekeeper, was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize, she was shortlisted for the Willesden Herald short story prize in 2008, a finalist for the Bridport Prize in 2009 and was long-listed for the Sunday Times EFT Short Story prize 2010 alongside A.L. Kennedy, Rose Tremain, Jackie Kay and Helen Simpson. Her first non-fiction book is called Minding My Peas and Cucumbers: Quirky Tales of Allotment Life.

In addition to banging words together as Kay Sexton, she writes under the pen names Ren Holton and Carmel Lockyer, toils on her allotment and ministers to a Cairn Terrier called Rebus.

I got to know Kay via my wife. Kay submitted work to Carrie’s magazines and eventually did some work for her as an editor. It was unpaid but work is work, right? Recently she posted this on her blog. In part:

I went to an event earlier this month that I wasn’t expecting to attend, picked up my little badge at the door and it said Kay Sexton: Writer. Fair enough, I thought. Deep in the room was a person I have known distantly, for many years.

“What makes you a writer?” she asked and she didn’t ask it nicely.

The simple answer is that the person who wrote the badges made me a writer. Her badge said Lecturer which I also thought was fair enough. She earns her money through talking to students, I earn mine through writing. Simples, as some annoying mammals on TV commercials say.

But no. She pursued the subject and I knew why. In her eyes she is more of a writer than me. She has, after all, written a masterly doctoral thesis on Henry James, and had it published. Not in English by the way, in case you’re heading off to google my interlocutor (and I suspect I’m supposed to be pedantically furious that google is now a verb, but frankly, my dear, I have bigger things to worry about—like my appalling form in back squats). In her eyes she is a more erudite writer than me. A more substantial writer than me. She doesn’t write mucky stories for money (nor do I: I write complex feminist erotica for money, or at least that’s how I think of it) and she teaches the subject of writing at graduate level.

If you asked me, I wouldn’t say I was a writer. I would have said that writing is what I do, not what I am. I am, by comparison, a mother, an allotment-holder, a cook, and a crossfitter. And yet …

I’ll leave it there. If you want to read the whole post, feel free. I had started writing this post before I got caught up in her post but I was genuinely upset for her because, unlike so many of us who write simply for the love of it, Kay Sexton is a jobbing author. Her non-fiction book was a commission. I read it and, although it’s not my kind of book, I couldn’t fault the writing. It wasn’t simply competent; she raised the bar for herself and wrote a book that managed to keep my attention and entertain me. And then some snobby lecturer comes along and asks by what right she has the temerity to call herself a writer.

There are very few people out there who truly enjoy their job. Mondays stink, Wednesdays drag and Fridays refuse to end quickly enough. But it’s what we do so that we’re free the rest of the time to do what we want to do, be that trainspotting, stamp collecting, pigeon racing or novel writing. Kay is one of the lucky ones in that she has a job she loves. She is a professional amateur, not, I hasten to add, an amateurish professional.

You’ll note I never included book collecting as one of my hobbies even though I have a collection dating back to when I was sixteen. In this regard I agree with Jeanette Winterson who said:

Book collecting is an obsession, an occupation, a disease, an addiction, a fascination, an absurdity, a fate. It is not a hobby. Those who do it must do it. Those who do not do it, think of it as a cousin of stamp collecting, a sister of the trophy cabinet, bastard of a sound bank account and a weak mind.

Spider-Woman2Books are like tools and although there will be those who collect tools simply to own them and never have the slightest intention of using them I use my books. They do not need to be in pristine condition. They are not, like my copy of X-Force #1 still in its original wrapping and unread even though it was not sold in a Mylar bag. I remember paying £2 for a copy of Spider-Woman #2 simply to complete my collection. Don’t get me wrong, I like collecting but I don’t collect books. I have amassed a large number of books but I don’t collect them. It’s semantics but words are important to us writers, even us amateur writers.

Like so many posts like this there is no right answer to the question I posed at the outset; I raised it to make you think. I’ve never considered writing as a hobby personally. It wasn’t a job and referring to it as a vocation or a calling sounds pretentious beyond belief. There’s nothing a writer hates more than not having a word for something. What is writing to me? Here’s a poem I wrote in 1997:

The Art of Breathing

To find room for the new
you have to let go of
the old

so to learn how to write
I had to forget how
to breathe

and for a time I thought
I had to write to keep

which makes such perfect sense
but only if you're a

20 November 1997

Writing, for me, is a way of life. For some it will be a hobby and for others a job of work but if it’s not a way of life then they deserve to be called dabblers. I am not a dabbler. Writing is not a bit of fun. It is not a distraction although it is frequently distracting. The odds of me attending any kind of event where someone might hand me a badge that said: Jim Murdoch: Writer are remote but if I was handed one there is no way I would hand it back and say, “I’m sorry, you’re mistaken. This must be some other ‘Jim Murdoch’.” A lifestyle—I’m thinking here of the term as it was originally defined by Adler—involves choices: we choose how we view ourselves even if we can’t influence how the world views us.  Identity, however, is a complex thing and I’m not going to get onto that hobbyhorse here. Instead I’ll leave you with a final quote from Harvey Fierstein to mull over:

Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one's definition of your life, but define yourself.

I am a writer. That means something to me. My inability to explain to others precisely what that means in no way diminishes how important it is to me to look in the mirror and see a writer looking back at me. I don’t owe you an explanation. You’re not the boss of me.

Sunday 23 September 2012

The Heart Broke In

The Heart Broke In

It would be ugly to watch people poking sticks at a caged rat. It is uglier still to watch rats poking sticks at a caged person. – Jean Harris

Of all the books to spring to mind when reading The Heart Broke In the last one most people would think about would be The Rats by James Herbert but this just shows how my mind works. I don’t actually think there are any rats in The Heart Broke In—there are scientists and laboratories but no lab rats that I can think of. Some of the people are rats of course. One of the weaknesses of the horror genre—especially on film—is that most of the characters are only there as fodder and we really never get to bond with them before they meet their sticky (and these days increasingly imaginative) end at the hands of the serial killer or mutant sheep or whatever. What I liked about Herbert in The Rats is that he spends the first few chapters introducing us to a succession of characters—Harris the teacher, Paula and Mike and baby Karen, Guilfoyle the gay salesman and his protégé Francis—and devotes sufficient time to make us curious about and interested in them … and then he kills them. It is simple and effective. James Meek, although he takes several hundred pages more, does exactly that. Okay he doesn’t kill them but he does make them suffer. He takes us into the lives of Ritchie and Bec and Alex and Harry and Val and their families, friends and colleagues, makes us care about them, then frees the rats and hands out sticks.

Interestingly the first character we meet and get to know is one of the rats. Ritchie Shepherd used to be the lead singer in a rock band call The Lazygods along with his now-wife Karin who was, truth be told, the real creative force behind the group. They have two young children, Ruby and Dan, live in a £3 million Hampshire mansion and are not short of a bob or two. Ritchie produces Teen Makover an X-Factor-type show aimed at, as the title suggests, the teenage demographic and is doing very nicely. What flags him a rat is that he’s having an affair which these days isn’t so uncommon but what makes him especially rodentine is that the girl he’s been sleeping with is still only fifteen. According to an article I read in The Independent a quarter of girls have underage sex but for some reason society gets up in arms if the guy happens to be a bloke in his forties. Although it looks as if Ritchie’s going to be found out—his young daughter discovers the mobile phone through which he arranges his liaisons—miraculously, even after the girl’s mother finds out and confronts him, it still looks as if he’s going to get away with it. He breathes a sigh of relief.

The next thing we know we’re reading about some woman in Africa called Bec who we learn is Ritchie’s sister. She is whatever the opposite of rat might be. She’s a parasitologist and is well on the way to concocting the cure for malaria. During the course of the book she actually finds half a cure and becomes something of a media celebrity on the back of it. When we first encounter her she has a fiancé called Val, a newspaper editor (yes, he’s the next rat) and they are, frankly, something of an odd couple. He’s besotted with her but his feelings are not reciprocated and she’s not even sure how they wound up engaged—“her behaviour outside science seemed quite random to her”—and so she does the right thing. It’s not the worst breakup in the history of mankind but Val takes it badly—very badly. He wants to get back at her but there is simply no dirt on her. She’s a bona fide angel. Rats, however, are known for their intelligence and something she says just before walking out the door gives him an idea:

‘You could have asked me to marry you before you put your hand between my legs,’ she said. ‘You could have asked me to marry you before you kissed me. You talk as if there are rules I should be living by but if there are, you don’t know them any better than I do. I wish there was some kind of moral foundation I could stand on or try to blow up if I didn’t like it but there isn’t one.’ (Italics mine)

Be careful what you wish for. It might come true.

A month later Val invited Ritchie to lunch in his office.

blofeld1Val’s newspaper is the kind of rightwing tabloid which relishes in naming and shaming "immigrants, grasping bureaucrats, socialists, workshy spongers, amoral celebrities, trashy nouveau riche types, sexual perverts and traitors" and he has a proposition for Ritchie. With an air of some flamboyance—seriously you’d think he was a Bond villain—he makes Ritchie aware that he knows what he’s been up to:

‘[Y]ou’ve done wrong. Now you know the difference. I can see you feel sorry for yourself. You’re imagining other people feeling sorry for you too, aren’t you? Look at poor little Ritchie, getting a hiding from that evil tabloid editor. Look at him hounded and his privacy invaded. It was you, Ritchie. You did this.’ Val’s voice became softer. ‘When you don’t believe, when you don’t have faith in powers beyond this world to judge you, this is what happens. You don’t believe in God, so when you cheat, and lie, and bully little girls, there’s nobody to punish you. There’s just me.’

The price of his silence? Ritchie has a year’s grace. If within that time he has not provided Val with a suitably newsworthy (i.e. defamatory) story featuring his sister then the world will get to know precisely what kind of man Ritchie Shepherd truly is. At first Ritchie takes the high ground:

‘Do what you like … I’m not going to be your snitch and spy inside my own family.’

but by the time he’s driven home his resolve was somewhat diminished and he sends Val a text:

Do nothing precipitate

All the above takes 112 pages so a fifth of the book.

Now we’re introduced to Alex Comrie, brother of Dougie, nephew of Harry, friend to Ritchie and the drummer in his first band, Gorse. When Ritchie drops out of university to form The Ladygods with Karin, Alex sticks with his studies. Surprisingly Ritchie doesn’t let their friendship die even though their lives move off in very different directions. Perhaps having a scientist as a sister made him more amenable to having a “biomathematical traveller in the unmapped human cell” as a friend; that would be “gene therapist” to you and me. Ritchie is also oblivious to the fact Alex has a wee thing for his sister but nothing ever came of it when they were teenagers and now Alex is living with Maria with whom he seems to be unable to conceive a child.

Harry is also a scientist, “a medical geneticist who’d discovered that most people had a few immune cells with a recurring set of benign mutations that turned the mutant lymphocytes into cancer-hunting cells.” These “expert cells” as Harry calls them, if they could be harvested and tweaked genetically, could provide the cure to cancer. “He had already but cured one rare form of cancer.” The bugbear is that he’s suffering from one of the others and so it looks like Alex is going to be the man to pick up the torch. Needless to say, although he and Bec were never an item, Alex has followed her work in the journals. The odds of the two of them running into each other again are remote, even with Ritchie in common, but remote is not impossible. When we first meet him he’s still with Maria but with the failure of IVF their relationship is struggling.

Harry’s own son (and therefore Alex’s cousin) is Matthew. He is not a scientist nor has he ever been in a rock band. Matthew has found religion although it doesn’t seem to have brought him much joy. Father and son don’t get on. They don’t get on to such a degree that Matthew won’t even let Harry see his grandchildren in case he corrupts them with his blasphemous views regarding the origins of life. So Alex has pretty much taken over Matthew’s role as son and heir.

The last of the major players is Dougie, Alex’s brother. Dougie’s a postman and a bit of a waster. He owes his brother a lot of money but he’s really not that big of a rat or even much of a rat at all. There are bad men and there are weak men and Dougie really isn’t a bad man. He does do a bad thing, though. The bad thing. The thing is as far as bad things go it’s not that bad a bad thing. It’s just the wrong bad thing at the wrong (depending on your point of view) time.

Some books adapt well into either films or TV serials. I watched the recent remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and it was excellent but there was not an ounce of fat anywhere; it had been preened to the bone. There was no way that it was ever going to best the superb seven-part BBC adaptation. If I were adapting the Heart Broke In for the small michael_gambonscreen I’d have to disembowel the book to make it work. I’d focus on chapters 1 to19 then jump to chapters 60 through 75, then see how much time I had left to cherry-pick from the middle of the book. And it would work. We’ve seen how scriptwriters have made it work time and time again. Ideally though someone like the BBC would get their hands on it, allocate it probably a four- or five-hour slot, farm out the work to a decent scriptwriter (maybe Paula Milne), sign up some big names (Michael Gambon would be perfect for ‘Harry’) and it would be compulsive viewing of a Sunday evening. Maybe not another Bouquet of Barbed Wire (the original) but good solid entertainment.

The blurb says it all really:

From James Meek, the award-winning author of the international bestseller The People’s Act of Love, comes a rich and intricate novel about everything that matters to us now: children, celebrity, secrets and shame, the quest for youth, loyalty and betrayal, falls from grace, acts of terror, and the wonderful, terrible inescapability of family.

If you’ve ever been a member of a family then you will get this book. You might not be able to relate to Ritchie’s philandering or Matthew’s piety; you might not get why it’s so important to Alex to father his own child but these are just details. Blood is thicker than water and so many great books and plays work because of that simple premise.

Theo Tait hits the nail on the head when he says in his review that Meek “is a novelist of Dostoevskyan intensity and seriousness, who occasionally yields to the impulses of the airport thriller.” Canongate editorial director Francis Bickmore describes it as "a 21st-century Anna Karenina" and his American counterpart echoes that viewpoint. There are “plots and subplots” but it took me a long time to work out which were the plots and which the subplots. Meek says:

I wanted this to be a multiperspective book. I wanted to go back to the way it used to be when a writer who appears to be focusing on a particular character will suddenly dip into the mind of another one. Well, I haven’t gone quite that far in The Heart Broke In, but it is told from multiple points of view.... One thing I can now do is enjoy a book and analyze it at the same time, and think, why do I like that, what’s the author doing there? I don’t know whether I’m a better writer now than I was 20 years ago, but I do know that I’m a better reader. – Johanna Lane, ‘Collisions with Strangeness: James Meek’, Publishers Weekly, 2nd July 2012

The book jumps from naught to sixty in about three pages. We’re dropped into the seething morass that is Ritchie’s life—his phone’s gone AWOL and then his girlfriend’s mother turns up, his daughter’s blackmailing him to get a spot on TV—and although he may be an unsavoury character he certainly is an interesting one—and then we get Bec’s story, then Alex’s and then there’s Harry talking to his barber—and I really couldn’t figure out where this was all going. Four of my own five novels would have been finished by this point and I didn’t feel that ‘the story’ had really started. I have said many, many times that I don’t like long novels and there were big chunks of this one I could not see the point of. Meek spends four pages describing a journey through streets that could have been summarised by the sentence, “The traffic was so bad he nearly missed her.”

Most novels—with perhaps the exception of crime novels where the crime often takes precedence—start off by letting us know who the protagonist is; frequently his are the first words we hear. He’s usually there on page one and, a bit like a chick breaking our way out of the egg, we see him and attach ourselves to him. The thing Lyndsey Marshalis Ritchie Shepherd is really not the book’s focus. At the heart of this book is the love story between Alex and Bec, although they are no Romeo and Juliet. Yes, because of what Ritchie got caught doing, he has an impact on their lives, but in this ensemble Bec feels to me like the star turn. (Lyndsey Marshal maybe?) I didn’t like giving Ritchie up. I might not have liked him but I wanted to see what happened to him and then I get all these scientists. I didn’t want to read about scientists; I wanted to see Ritchie get his comeuppance. Musically this is like Also Sprach Zarathustra. Everyone knows those famous opening bars but what happens after that? I felt cheated the first time I heard it. I still have that tape in fact and haven’t listened to it in years.

I’m not a scientist nor am I especially interested in science. If you’re going to talk science to me, make a documentary with flashy visuals and get someone cool like Morgan Freeman to do the presenting. Maybe then I’ll watch it. Probably not. Most of the science stuff in the book I wanted to be over. It clogged up the narrative. The moral dilemmas facing these individuals were more important than what they did to earn a crust. In an interview Meek writes:

People who do not believe in God are not excused from having to make moral choices, and you are a poor novelist, or poor human being, if you don’t examine what kind of a moral framework we have—or what it means to be living, loving, and having a family in a nonreligious world or one in which it is at least permitted not to believe. I don’t share the belief of the believers, but I do understand them when they say, Why be good? Why have children? Some philosophers have looked at these issues, but it hasn’t trickled down to Joe Atheist.

This is where the description “Dostoevskyan” is appropriate because everyone here eventually has to make a decision. The tag line for the book is:

Would you betray someone you love to give them what they want?

but that only refers to Bec’s problem. Ritchie’s conundrum is obvious but then Harry and Alex and Dougie all are faced with making decisions that will affect the lives of others. What moral compass is guiding them?

One reviewer on Goodreads says that she wished the book was longer. Actually I do get that because there are a lot of people in this book and some of the minor Ciara Baxendaleones really don’t get the time on the page they probably deserve and will end up on the cutting room floor if they even manage to squeeze themselves into the script. Matthew’s daughter Rose who leaves home to become a Muslim is one. (Ciara Baxendale certainly looks the part. Now if she can just pull off the Scottish accent.) As far as I’m concerned there are two books fighting against each other here, a thriller and a morality tale. Once Bec answers her question it felt as if Meek had suddenly floored it. Up until that point it seemed like we’d been running on fumes. Too long for me but anything over 250 pages is too long for me. Meek has good points to make—and he makes them well—but he didn’t need to spend 550 pages making them.

You can preview the novel on Google Books here.


jamesmeekJames Meek is a British writer and journalist. He was born in London in 1962 but moved when he was five to Broughty Ferry in Scotland.

After leaving university he worked as a journalist. In 1990 The Scotsman sent him to Saudi Arabia to cover the confrontation with Iraq over Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. He was in the Middle East for six weeks and was one of the first reporters into Kuwait City after the Iraqis fled. In 1991 he drove to Russia and began working as a freelance reporter for The Guardian. He lived in Moscow for five years.

The Heart Broke In is his fifth novel; he has also published two short story collections. In 2004 he was named Foreign Correspondent and Amnesty Journalist of The Year. His third novel, The People’s Act of Love (2005) won the Scottish Arts Council Book of Year Award and the Ondaatje Prize and has been translated into twenty languages. His fourth novel, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent (2008) won the Prince Maurice prize for literary love stories.

He now lives in east London and is a contributing editor for the London Review of Books.

Sunday 16 September 2012

The Fall of the Stone City

The Fall of the Stone City

The name of the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare regularly comes up at Nobel Prize time, and he is still a good bet to win it one of these days. . . . He is seemingly incapable of writing a book that fails to be interesting. — The New York Times

I have now read three books by Ismail Kadare. The first was The Ghost Rider; the second, Chronicle in Stone. The Fall of the Stone City is the third and in many ways feels like an amalgam of these two earlier works. The first is, in essence, a detective novel. What makes it different is that the detective is investigating the appearance and actions of a dead man. A mother loses nine of her sons because of a war. She sends three messengers to her daughter who has married and is living in another country but none can get through and then one day someone who says he is Kostandin, one of the dead brothers, arrives on horseback and whisks his sister off to see their mother. On arriving back in their hometown the man drops her off but says he has business at the local church. He is never seen again and, of course, as soon as the girl enters her mother’s house she becomes aware that it couldn’t have been Kostandin since he died three years earlier. Or could it be? Chronicle in Stone focuses on a young boy growing up in Gjirokastër, a city in Albania, the city where Kadare himself grew up. So a kind of bildungsroman set during World War II.

The Fall of the Stone City is also partly set during World War II and really begins where Chronicle in Stone leaves off although the boy does not even have a cameo in this new book which is in three parts: ‘1943’, ‘1944’ and ‘1953’ although in the last few pages we jump ahead as far as 2007. A little bit of history then c/o Wikipedia:

In April 1939, Gjirokastër was occupied by Italy following the Italian invasion of Albania. In December 1940, during the Greco-Italian War, the Greek Army entered the city and stayed for a four month period before capitulating to the Germans in April 1941 and returning the city to Italian command. After the Italy's capitulation in September 1943, the city was taken by German forces, and eventually returned to Albanian control in 1944.

The post-war Communist regime developed the city as an industrial and commercial centre. It was elevated to the status of a museum town, as it was the birthplace of the Communist leader of Albania, Enver Hoxha, who had been born there in 1908.

I mention this because it’s important to realise that Gjirokastër was used to being occupied by foreign forces and had been for centuries. Its residents are therefore quite philosophical about the whole thing. They’re an odd bunch, I have to say, who delight in gossip and rumour mongering. They are also superstitious, old-fashioned and loyal to the traditions of their ancestors to a fault. When Hoxha was in power one of the things he tried to do was squash Albania’s heritage and cultural identity. A hard task indeed. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s jump back to 1943:

In the autumn of 1943 … Italy suddenly capitulated and lost her friend [Germany]. Alliances have been broken throughout history but in this case the prospects for Italy were especially grim. […] Germany’s rage was uncontrollable and German soldiers were ordered to shoot their former allies on the spot as deserters.


[B]ut what was the status of Albania? Either she had capitulated with Italy or some other interpretation was called for, and the more one tried to explain the situation, the more confused it became.

Sometimes the question was put more simply. Albania had been one of the three component parts of the now fallen empire [along with Ethiopia]. Did this mean that one third of Germany’s fury would fall on her?

The city looks to the Doctors Gurameto for answers. The frustrating thing is that “Big Dr Gurameto and Little Dr Gurameto [are] going about the city as always.” So who were these doctors? University professors? Politicians? Historians? No, just a couple of surgeons. They weren’t even related. Big Dr Gurameto had studied in Germany; Little Dr Gurameto in Italy but there exists no real enmity between the two. They get on with their jobs leaving them with precious little time to take an interest in anything else and yet the locals treat the pair like some kind of socio-political barometer which had really picked its time to malfunction; the Germans are not at the gates to the city but they’re not far off. And then something odd happens:

One morning two unknown aircraft dropped thousands of leaflets over Gjirokastër. They were in two languages, German and Albanian, and provided a full explanation. Germany was not invading, she merely wanted to pass through Albania. She was coming as a friend. Not only did Germany have no quarrel with Albania, in fact she was liberating the country from the hated Italian occupation and restoring Albania’s violated independence.

The city springs into action and starts throwing around opinions about what this all might mean and then someone really tosses a fox into the henhouse when he asks, “All right, so Germany has stated her intentions, but what stand will Albania take?”

They are still squabbling as the German army looms on the horizon each faction offering different predictions and they are still debating matters when “[o]f all these predictions, the worst came true. On the highway at the entrance to the city the German advance party was fired on. It was neither war nor appeasement, just an ambush.”

TanksThe Germans weigh up their options carefully and decide that the appropriate response would be to blow up the city. It is seen as an ignominious end. Tanks appear, move in a black, orderly file along the highway until they reach their firing positions where they commence their bombardment. And then, suddenly and inexplicably, they stop. “One of the inhabitants had apparently waved a white sheet from a rooftop, nobody could tell exactly where.” Whoever it was is never identified but the residents finally agree upon a simple explanation which reassured them that an act of neither cowardice nor treason had taken place:

The September wind had pulled a white curtain out of a window left open when the occupants of the house sought shelter in the cellar and blown it back and forth in front of the eyes of the Germans. […] Destiny itself in the form of the wind had done the necessary job.

Now this is where the book starts to get interesting and should be read with care.

The colonel in charge of the German troops is one Fritz von Schwabe, a man who happened to study with Big Dr Gurameto. He is from all accounts delighted to meet up with his former colleague and, although it takes the good doctor a few moments to recognise the man he used to know behind the scars and the Nazi uniform, the two embrace like old friends. The townsfolk hear the sound of music blaring from Gurameto’s house along with the clicking of champagne glasses and, as is in their nature, they begin to speculate as to what is going on behind those closed doors. Some of the townsfolk presume that Dr. Gurameto has betrayed them—the Nazis have taken eighty of the townsfolk prisoner and are intent on executing them in punishment for the earlier ambush—and yet, much to everyone’s surprise (especially Jakoel the Jew, one of the eighty) the Germans begin to release their prisoners. So is Big Dr Gurameto really a hero?

The day after everyone is grateful even if they are not quite sure to whom they ought to express their gratitude be it friend, foe or Destiny, but after that initial relief passes they find themselves curious about the specifics of that unforgettable mid-September night. What exactly happened?

The music of a gramophone was the first thing that seeped through. Then, slowly, and with great effort, people recalled the nightmare of the hostages. The fact that eighty people had lived through the horror of this experience, minute by minute, should have left no room for speculation or error but the hostages did not all tell the same story. Some did not want to admit that they had been hostages, perhaps fearing that in a second wave of arrests they would be told, “You, sir. This is the second time we’ve arrested you.” Other people who had not been hostages were thirsty for fame. They claimed that they had been present facing the machine guns on the city square and were so persuasive that they were believed more readily than genuine hostages.

This confusion added to the general mystery surrounding the events of the day. Out of force of habit these were called “unforgettable”, although so many deserved to be forgotten. They were recalled to mind one by one but more and more tentatively. What about the partisan ambush at the entrance to the city? God knows what really happened there. There were no eyewitness accounts and there was no physical evidence apart from two black skid marks on the asphalt, where it was thought the German motorcycles had turned back.


Obviously Gurameto’s famous dinner was the biggest mystery of all. It had started as Big Dr Gurameto’s fairy-tale reunion with his German college friend. But the rest went beyond any fairy tale.


[P]eople inevitably suggested the influence of some force majeure like the Double Night. It was as if, after lying in wait for a thousand years, this monster had finally descended to enfold forty or more hours in his arms, seizing a whole day like a wolf snatching a sheep, and had vanished again into the infinite depths of time.

Answers are not forthcoming and little by little people get on with life. Stories though are often most reluctant to die. This is where myths arise. There is such a storyteller in the city, a blind man known to all as Blind Vehip, a rhymester who, for a few coins, will produce rhymes to order “to mark occasions of every kind such as birthdays or the awards of decorations, to advertise barbers shops, or announce changes of address and opening hours. […] Occasionally, but very rarely, he would take it into his head to compose a rhyme without a commission, ‘from the heart’, as he put it.”

At the end of April he produced a verse about Big Dr Gurameto, perhaps his grimmest yet.

Gurameto, the mortal sinner
Met the devil one day on the street,
Who told him to host a great dinner
With champagne and good things to eat.


Two weeks later, Blind Vehip … produced a new version of his rhyme. Now the words made your flesh creep.

What was the doctor’s design,
Asking the corse to dine?

The archaic word “corse” [was one] that old people still used to refer to the dead.

Kadare_Ghost_Rider[4]This, of course, reminded me of the old Albanian story that Kadare based The Ghost Rider on. The blind man has no real explanation. The words came to him; that was all. He had nothing against the doctor. But simply because a man cannot see doesn’t mean he cannot possess insight.

There is a legend or a children’s bedtime story that Kadare includes early in the book.

The tale concerned the master of a house who was bound by a promise to invite a stranger to dinner. [Hospitality is as big a thing with Albanians as it was with the ancient Jews]. He handed the dinner invitation to his son with instructions. The son set out in search of an unknown passer-by but became frightened on the lonely road. Passing the cemetery, he threw the invitation over the wall and ran through the darkness, not knowing that the invitation had fallen on a grave. He returned home and said to his father, “I’ve done what you told me.” At that moment there appeared at the door the dead man with the invitation in his hand. The father and the family shrank back in horror. “You invited me and I’ve come,” said the dead man. “Don’t stare at me like that!”

What could this story have to do with anything, let alone the dream the doctor has where he is operating on himself with his own surgical instruments? All is made clear in the third part of the book. The communists are now in power and both doctors are arrested and interrogated. There is concern about the survival rate of their patients, that they are using their position to assassinate key individuals. It’s a little paranoid but typical of the kind of thing that went on during Hoxha’s time in power. (During Hoxha's time it is believed at least 100,000 were imprisoned for political reasons or for a word uttered; 5,000 were executed.) The thing is, the investigator, Shaqo Mezini, takes a particular interest in the night in 1943 ten years earlier when Big Dr Gurameto reportedly entertained a German colonel who may (or may not) have been a dead man. He even rounds up Blind Vehip and demands an explanation but, of course, he has none. Mezini becomes obsessed with getting the doctor to divulge the truth even though he maintains (and certainly seems) to be already aware of everything that transpired that night right down to minor details of private conversations that only Gurameto and the colonel could possibly have been privy to. The doctor is told that not knowing is making Stalin himself sick and answers are needed urgently to make him well again. Gradually, painfully the blanks are filled in. But have we finally got to the truth? And, if so, is there a deeper truth behind the one in the book itself? That there are allegorical elements is obvious.

While he was writing and still living in Albania there was no way Kadare felt he could be overtly dissident and so he turned to covert means. Writing in The Guardian, Julian Evans quotes Kadare:

“You risked being shot. Not condemned, but shot for a word against the regime. A single word.” […] Instead he revived old forms—parable, myth, fable, folk-tale, legend—packed them with allusion and metaphor, plundered the past. He is not a "contemporary" novelist. To read him is not to follow, as in English fiction, lives spotlit by lifestyle and current affairs, but lives snagged on the greater pendulum of history, of Balkan past and future.

Even though that time is behind him Kadare clearly still relishes the melding of myth and historical fact leaving us with a kind of truth, the kind that some readers will be uncomfortable with because not all the i’s are dotted or the t’s crossed. Most are. But not all.

Writing over at The Modern Novel – a blog, the author (who only appears to be identified by the initials ‘TMN’) talks at length about Kadare’s writing. He has read over twenty of Kadare’s novels including those only available in French at the moment (Kadare writes in Albanian and then the works are translated into French and then from the French into English). In the article TMN has this to say about Kadare’s book:

[D]espite Canongate’s The much anticipated new novel, I doubt if The Fall of the Stone City is much anticipated by all that many people.

I can understand why he might say that. Sadly he’s probably right. I’ve been dropping hints for months since I first heard it was coming out but then I suspect that both he (assuming he’s a he) and I are in the minority. And that is a shame because after an intriguing opening and an admittedly slow middle (which I was helped to appreciate by having first read Chronicle in Stone but which feels slow because we have so much hanging in midair) comes an absolute page-turner of an ending. I kid you not. Interrogations are never fun to read about but they can nevertheless make fascinating reading. The two that jump to my mind are in Nineteen Eighty-Four and David Karp’s One (a cruelly neglected classic from 1953) but how can we forget the subtle interrogation methods employed by le Carré’s Smiley in the likes of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy?

This is a book that you will most likely want to reread as soon as you’ve finished it. At only 176 pages that’s not going to take you very long. I accept it’s not a book for everyone but it is, nevertheless, as The New York Times may very well say when it gets round to reviewing it, an “interesting” read.


KadareIsmail Kadare was born in 1936 in Gjirokastër, in the south of Albania. He studied in Tirana and Moscow, returning to Albania in 1960 after the country broke ties with the Soviet Union. He is known for his novels, although he was first noticed for his poetry collections. He stopped writing poems in the 1960s and focused on short stories until the publication of his first novel, The General of the Dead Army. From 1963 he has been a novelist. In 1996 he became a lifetime member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences of France. In 1992, he was awarded the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca; in 2005, he won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize and in 2009 the Prince of Asturias Award of Arts. He has divided his time between Albania and France since 1990. He began writing very young, in the mid 1950s but published only a few poems. His works have been published in about thirty languages.

Sunday 9 September 2012

Fourteen Threadless Needles – an introduction to the poetry of Vito Pasquale

14 Threadless Needles

A journey of a thousand miles often starts with you barking up the wrong tree. . . – Koe Whitton Williams, November 20, 1955

All poems cause side effects – ‘Always Read the Label Before You Read the Poems’, – Vito Pasquale

If love at first sight exists it seems perfectly reasonable to me that friendship at first sight should too. Thinking about my friends throughout the years I usually couldn’t tell you when we became friends; they were suddenly a part of my life and I struggled to remember what my life was like before I knew them. This works much the same online as it does off. Kindred spirits are drawn together. I couldn't tell you when or how I became friends with Vito Pasquale. I’ll have stumbled on his blog or he’ll have left a comment on mine—that’s the way it goes—and the next thing we were friends. We exchanged e-mails. We talked on the phone. We collaborated. So there is no way I can objectively review his poetry collection Fourteen Threadless Needles since my wife and I were both involved from early on in its development. What I can talk about is why this guy’s stuff works for me.

At first I didn’t even know he was called Vito Pasquale. He wrote under the pseudonym Koe Whitton Williams of all things and it was only when an order came in for my second novel under the name Victor Pasquale that he fessed up. It’s not a big deal. Many online these days like to compartmentalise their lives and Vito is not the first I’ve become friendly with whose real name I didn’t know; names are only labels anyway. He started blogging on July 18th 2008, a year after me. His site was called the half-life of linoleum and the first quote that introduces this article was his first post. Many of his early posts read like aphorisms:

Two Kinds of Facts

Koe. . . there's but one kind of lie but two kinds of facts—those that are true and those that are too true.

The Seven Words You Can Never Say in Heaven

Koe: Jesus Christ, what are you doing here?

but it wasn’t long before his first ‘Jilly Nines’ appeared:

At Church with Jilly Nines

Dad (whispering) —"Jilly, you're making a noise when you breathe, it's a little too loud honey."
Jilly—"Does everyone in heaven hear me?"
J—"Does Grandpa Eric hear me?"
J—"Does Grandpa Eric breathe loud too?"
D—"In heaven you don’t really need to breathe, I think."
J— “What do I breathe?”
D—"Air. We breathe air."
J—"Where is it?"
D—"All around us."
J—"Is it touching me?"
D—(uh oh)
J—"IS IT touching me?"
D—"It’s everywhere, well not underwater or on the moon."
J—"Is it touching me now?"

What is immediately apparent even from these three early examples is that Vito has a way of looking at the world. Jilly's innocence was the perfect foil. She appears again and again, sometimes in dialogues like this, sometimes in narratives:

Everyone at my job is “Bill,” “Bob,” “Ruth,” “Sarah,” “Lester,” “Asshole Trevor,” or “etc.” What I mean is everyone is on a “first name” or “epithet and first name basis.” At school, it turns out that everyone is: Mrs. Greenhild, Mr. Ingram, Mrs. Lipton-Soupmix. I cannot handle this. I have to get on a first name basis with these people in a hurry or I’ll be as afraid to address them as I am to order a double-mocha-cino-mora-java-llada-roma at Starbucks. It’s intimidating. I just want to be able to say to Jilly’s teacher, “So, Julie are we having fun learning?” or “Jules, are we up to speed on the shape shifting thing yet?” (I do plan to refer to Jilly as “we” in school as I am prepared to take 100% responsibility for everything related to "our" schooling because there is no way she is getting away with the stuff that I got away with.)

from ‘First Contact’

A collection of ‘Jilly Nines’ pieces is in the works, tentatively entitled Tasting Ants.

Tasting Ants

“Yes, Jilly?”
“Hannah did a bad thing at school.”
“What was that honey?”
“She deaded something.”
“Oh dear.”
“She was tasting ants for recess, and she deaded one by accident.”
“Tasting ants?”
“Yes. On a spoon.”
“Was anyone, a teacher, watching her?”
“Miss Maya-Sara.”
“Did she see her tasting the ants?”
“She only saw Hannah dead the ant. The daddy ant.”
“How did you know it was the daddy?”
“It was the slowest runner.”
“What did Miss Maya-Sara do?”
“She took away the spoon Hannah found.”
“Did she say something?
“She was talking to Robert, who wanted to walk up the slide and climb down the ladder.”
“That’s wrong. Am I right?”
“What honey?”
“Walking up the slide.”
“Yes. It’s probably dangerous.”
ants“. . .”
“Yes daddy.”
“Did you taste the ants?”
“No. I did not have a spoon.”

Most of Vito’s early pieces were prose or at least prosaic—his early published works were all short stories (in the eighties he was published in the likes of Scholastic's Co-Ed magazine and the Sunday New York Times Westchester Weekly)—but it was pretty obvious, even from the start, that there was a poet a-hiding in there.

The first ‘poem’ arrived a few months later, on September 30th:

Four Score and Seven Therapists Ago

My first acting role, I am reluctant to
Admit, was in a Geek-sploitation film.
I had a speaking part in a
Geek crowd scene.

My line: “Look out Isaac Newton,
We’re on a rampage.”

The director was a very verbose
Woman in her thirties and
At the time that seemed quite
Old, sophisticated, improbable.

I had trouble delivering my line
To her liking. I had trouble
Taking direction, which is why
I had no other prospects other

Than acting. She said, “Do I have to
Spell it out for you?” And my mind
Was thinking “I T O U T F O R Y
O U” and my lips must have been moving

At the same time because she
Smacked me on the face. Which
ringHelped with my delivery
But is also why in my

First role I have a scratch
Running across my cheek
From the claddagh ring that
Her boyfriend gave her.

Your fifties is late to start writing poetry but there’s no such a thing as too late—my wife started at forty-eight (“seriously” she adds)—and Wikipedia has a whole article on late bloomers but this is what Vito had to say on the subject:

Working on such a compact scale (most of my poems are short) lets me, any writer, work towards finding the few dozen words or so that can explode off the page.  A poem is like a dive off a high cliff.  I think if I had found poetry twenty years earlier, I would never have stopped writing [for many years he had a very demanding job] but perhaps that isn't true. Perhaps I just was not prepared to write twenty years ago. 

Okay I put ‘poem’ in inverted commas. That’s not because I don’t think this is a poem but because, firstly, I think there will be those out there who don’t, but, secondly, and more importantly, I’m not so sure Vito would worry that much and I’m with him there. I personally don’t think it matters. Labels give us an excuse to judge: Yes, it’s poemy but it’s not really that poemy. Do you think it’s poemy? Yes? No? How does one tell? Anyway I put this to him:

Jim: Like me a lot of your poetry could well be classified as antipoetry (as exemplified by Nicanor Parra, i.e. “prose-like, irreverent, and Abbie_hoffman_steal_this_bookilluminating the problems of human existence”). Is that a fair comment? Does it matter to you?

Vito: It is a fair comment.  "Prose-like, irreverent, and illuminating problems of human existence" is a mantle I am more than comfortable wearing. Two years ago I wrote a poem with one of Parra's lines in it. His line was: "Nobody reads poetry nowadays," from the poem ‘Stop Racking Your Brains’. My Poem was called ‘Steal This Poem’ (which I borrowed, more or less, from Abbie Hoffman's Steal this Book):

Steal This Poem

My new friend Martin told
this story during a break at
our creative writing group:

"I told my wife, I was
hoping someone would
steal a poem from
me tonight. The market
seems right, the stimulus
package not working,
people ostensibly quicker
to cast ethics overboard,
widespread looting."

"She said, 'Nobody reads poetry
nowadays, even realpoets*
know that.'"

"But," I told her, "I find that
I don't care if they read them
as long as they steal them."

"'Because?' she asked."

"Because anything worth
stealing today,

The antipoetry tag matters to me in that I think it an incredible compliment for a person to consider another's work long enough to enjoy it and to think about where it might fit.  So, I thank you.  And, I think you have it right. I suppose I could make a long list of the things I don't consider when I write and it would probably be a fairly good fit with the list of things one should consider when writing a poem.

Parra was not the first writer that jumped to mind when I read Vito’s stuff. It was actually Richard Brautigan. Not his prose so much as his poetry:

richard_brautiganJim: I see a touch of Brautigan in your writing. How do you feel about that? Come to think of that how do you feel about Brautigan?

Vito: I am thrilled that you see a connection.  I attended summer classes in English one year while in high school and had what would prove to be the best teacher of my life.  I will never forget what we read over those six weeks:  J. B. by Archibald MacLeish, Waiting for Godot, The Chosen by Chaim Potok and The Abortion: An Historical Romance by Richard Brautigan. All had a great influence on me, although it's only Beckett and Brautigan that I have continued to read over the years.  I wrote the poem ‘The New Calendar’ with Brautigan's calendar in Trout Fishing in America in mind. He writes: "I like best tomorrow: the black, soundless watermelon days."  The poem, ‘Behind the Scenes at the Penance Factory,’ is my attempt to have Robert Frost meet Richard Brautigan.  I can only hope that I succeeded in that. 

The New Calendar

Monday: No more than one per month. Will
usually follow a Friday.

Tuesday: Every fourth day will be a Tuesday.

Wednesday: Will follow every other Tuesday
and precede every third Thursday.

Thursday: Every fifth day will be a Thursday,
unless it's a Tuesday.

Friday: The year will start and end on a Friday.
The ninth day of every month will be a
Friday, even if it's a Tuesday.

Saturday: The last time we talked was on
a Saturday. The sky was filled with lightning
and misconceptions, the dogwoods
had gradually gone red and I thought
I'd finally been born. Your eyes were
gleaming. I would have followed
your tears to the bottom of the ocean
but you didn't cry. I did.

Sunday: Every day that isn't some other day is
      a Sunday.
It can also follow Saturday, if ever there is another.

Jim: And your other literary heroes?

Vito: A friend gave me Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins in 1975 and I've read almost every word he's written since. I think everything I write is partly informed by Monty Python's Flying Circus and by the composer Steve Reich, attempts to bring together wit, minimalism and repetition.  I think of ‘The Poem of the Seven Veils’ as something I'd look to have Graham Chapman read

Poem of the Seven Veils

Veil [1]

[1] The story of my life: eight veils.

and ‘I'll be Jack if You'll be Jill (and if neither of us actually has to break anything)’ as a homage to Steve Reich, with the repeating line, “too many times”.  I also should mention Robert Frost because he was the poet that was most often taught to us in school and I frequently find myself in awe of a line of his that I wasn't even aware of a day earlier. He sneaks up on me now and again.  There are others: Kay Ryan, Galway Kinnell, Joseph Heller, Donald Barthelme...

Jim: Most of your poetry is slight. In an e-mail to me you once said, “I've always been interested in how little of a 'thing' is still the 'thing.'  And when you take enough away—when does the thing become something else?” Care to expand on this?

Vito: This has to do with how I attempt to create (and not bore people with providing too much context, which can be one of my tendencies). One of my favourite paintings is Malevich's White on White.  I feel that there is an intense beauty in taking almost everything away, such that what is left is the most concentrated form of the original idea. Fourteen Threadless Needles is about relationships and the passage of time. Early in the book, in ‘A Poem for You’, the 'writer' maintains, rather conventionally, “it's a poem, it has to have words. . . ” and the subject of the poem responds, “Not in my book.”  The writer is off the hook, no longer needing words. It's a breakthrough, if you will, in our relationships, no longer needing words.

I once wrote a poem which perhaps only works online. The text is as follows:

Is this white type on a white background, or is it something else?

johncageI think it works well because it is either nothing, or, if the reader regards the blank space in something other than a passive way, she or he is rewarded for participating in the work. It needs the reader to take action to complete. In this case I took away all the words in order to give the reader something else.

If I were to take away all of the notes in a piece of music, we'd have 4' 33" of silence; when John Cage did it, it was much more than silence.  That's perhaps my goal, to have my silences or wordlessness or the blank page be as meaningful as my sounds or words or images.

Jim: That strikes me as a very Beckettian thing to say. He said once:

Most writers waste people’s time with too many words. I’m trying to reduce everything down to the minimum. My last work will be a blank piece of paper.

Vito: Exactly. If I'd had a different career it might have been as an archaeologist, stripping away the layers of time to find, what no one, including myself, knew was there.

After a while of posting just text Vito began to upload photos and gradually the images started to overshadow his writing (at least that’s how it felt online) but appearances can be deceptive as we have seen; because something is not online doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. He has still been writing, simply not posting. In fact he removed almost all his poems and I’ll come back to that in a minute. But I thought first of all I’d address his growing interest in photography:

Jim: I wrote recently:

Poems are flat.
Poetry’s not.

What are your thoughts? Photos are also flat. If poems are an attempt to capture poetry then what are photos capturing?

Vito: Photos attempt to capture certainty.

I interpret what you've written as: Poetry's the sum of all poems and poetic ideas; poems written and not yet written and never to be written. Poetry's perfect. Poems are not. Poems contain wonder because of the human attempt to attain perfection, to complete the eternally incomplete "Poetry." And we can appreciate poems for both the attempts at perfection as well as their inherent imperfections, their almost imperceptible graininess trying to displace all that flatness.

Of course, I might have that all wrong, but If I were to think analogously to what you've written, I might say Photographs are flat, Photography's not. I think the world is flooded with, and our lives overflow with, uncertainty. Who knows what one is going to 'get' when one begins a work of art or a photograph or a poem for that matter?  Who knows what one is going to 'get' on any given day? 

Photography then, by my imperfect analogy, is perfect.  It is a visual recording of every moment, everywhere, at every scale, at every angle, with every nuance, in all contexts.  And I think all that a photograph attempts to do is to capture certainty in one little moment and place and we can appreciate photos for both the attempts at perfection as well as the inherent imperfections, their unfortunately perceptible graininess trying to displace all that uncertainty.

Jim: You’ve started incorporating words into your most recent photomontages. What are you aiming at with this blurring the boundaries between writing and art?

Vito: Readers are impatient, especially online. Some people read four words and are gone. It's challenging to get someone's attention in four words (although we try and. . . fail, sometimes). 

I think the same person in an art gallery tends to be more patient, if for no other reason than she or he has invested some time to get there and it takes time just to move your body through the space.  ‘Your Cart is Empty’ (one of the photo montages) means one thing if you're blazing through Amazon but it means something entirely different (I think) on the wall of a gallery, with an image of a child's handful of little yellowed, yellow flowers on a sepia-coloured, old-looking wedding invitation, mottled paper background.  Think about it, "Your cart is empty."  E.M.P.T.Y. There is nothing in it. Not a thing. You have nothing in your cart, it's white on white. You are now invited to observe that "Your cart is empty."  How can you stand it?  "Your cart is empty."


Also, people who go to galleries tend to be with someone else and in that setting people are more likely to say to each other. . . something:  "What do you suppose that means?" or "I like those yellowed yellow flowers," or "What cart?" or "This does nothing for me." All of which are incredibly interesting to me. So, I guess this blurring of boundaries is mostly about how readers and viewers will interact with the work, the images and words, an attempt of mine to get into a different venue. Even if the venue is still online, I like the idea that one can hide words in images and can make juxtapositions that are perhaps more poignant than just the words, 'your cart is empty,' or just a photograph of yellowed yellow flowers. I rarely have favourites in my own work but the image and text of ‘untitled no. 5.28.12’ affects me differently every time I look at it. It's as if someone else did it.

untitled no. 5.28.12


Jim: So why did you close the half-life of linoleum?

Vito: I'd made a few great friends from writing and posting photos and concept pieces on ‘the half-life of linoleum’ and part of me is sorry that I closed it but I was just done with it. The reason I started to delete posts was that some were designed to be somewhat ephemeral and then I got carried away. It's not true of course that anything put on the internet ever truly 100% disappears but now, the old work mostly exists in the google readers of those who followed the blog. When I think about it, it's kind of a neat place to 'exist.' Only in memory.

There is an article on the Poetry Foundation website about William Bronk. You can read the whole article here but this quote made me think of Vito:

I don’t remember a single individual Bronk poem, and I don’t know if they’re actually memorable; anyhow, they don’t matter to me in that way. For me they’re like the small brown bottle my grandmother carried in her purse and sniffed for the pick-me-up jolt.

This is very much how I feel about Vito’s poetry. No, I couldn't rattle one off now to save my life but that said I doubt I could recite one of my own poems and get it word perfect. There is memorable and there is memorable. Old poems with regular rhythms and strong rhymes are so much easier to commit to memory than modern free verse. I don’t think that it’s a fair comparison.

In an interview on Paula Cary’s site the poet Angela Veronica Wong wrote this:

When I organize a manuscript of poems, I look to create a narrative arc through the collection—of course I want each poem to stand alone, but I also want there to be a conversation that the poems are having with each other. I am interested in how each poem is changed or affected by the other poems that are included in the book.

This was the problem that faced Carrie, Vito and myself when we started looking at the poems he had kludged together to form a collection which, at the time, he was going to call Behind the Scenes at the Penance Factory. There was no apparent order to them but to my mind the only natural order that poems have is the order in which they were written. I pick up my big red folder and that’s as close to an autobiography as I’m ever going to write. Vito’s poems came without dates although that’s really neither here nor there as memory isn’t linear. But as I pawed through the sheets it was obvious to me that there was an underlying narrative beginning in 1969. Did you notice the asterisk in the poem ‘Steal this Poem’? It designates a neologism. There are more in the opening to ‘Over Near the Dictionaries 2’:

We wrote our initials in the OED
on page 1969 in honour of the
year, SNH on the left, VJP on
the right. We added some words
we knew to be missing. I added
windowsilliness,* and you,

This is where ‘they’ first meet, “in the library” and where their courtship begins. Of course the ‘they’ is a composite ‘they’ comprised of numerous women and the woman the narrator is sitting at a table with in ‘Love’ may not be the girl in the library, the woman whose bed he’s hiding under in ‘Stray Cats’ or the woman suffering from Alzheimer’s in ‘The Persistence of Laundry’. Vito accurately describes the content in the blurb:

Fourteen Threadless Needles is a poetry collection about a lifetime of relationships, the relationship of a lifetime and the awareness that 'Something there is that doesn't love a happy ending.' Poems about love, sharing, laughter, forgetting, second guesses and a poem for you:

A Poem for You

— I want to write a poem for you.
— Um, okay.
— Can you pose for me, sitting in this chair in the sunlight?
— Why?
— I need to be able to see you clearly—to describe you perfectly.
— Should I take off my clothes?
— You don't have to. It wasn't going to be. . .
— What if I want to?
— If you do, I'll never get to the poem.
— That's okay isn't it?
— Well, I kind of had my heart set on writing a poem.
— Can't you change your mind? Your heart?
— Can I do the poem first?
— Only if it's nonabstractly unambiguous about the state of my undress.
— I don't think I have the right words with me. I left them home by accident.
— Then. Don't. Use. Words.
— It's a poem. It has to have words.
— Not in my book.

When Vito was posting regularly I was always delighted to see his blog highlighted in my feedreader and I was never disappointed. Many of his pieces are slight, almost inconsequential but the cumulative effect is what you have to look at. Some authors are better represented by collections than others and I think Vito is one of them.

His photography—the best of his photography (especially the photomontages)—has the same flavour as his poems. They are, in effect, visual poems. Poetry is much bigger than poems. Poems are containers in which we try to capture poetry and I believe the same is true with photographs. Both poems and photos provide us with small, still moments when we are faced with giving meaning to something outwith ourselves. What, for example, does ‘Pink’ mean?


Vito has had a number of exhibitions of his photography and one up and coming:

  • ‘Some Things We Both Might Have Missed', Mount Kisco Public Library, Oct 2012
  • ‘Fourteen Threadless Needles’, The Gallery at Still River Editions – Jan-Mar 2012
  • Hudson Valley Medical Center, Group Show, Sept 2011
  • Ossining Public Library, Group Show, June 2011
  • R. T. S. Gallery, Group Show, April-May 2011
  • ‘A City of (Second) Guesses’, Harrison Public Library, Jan-Feb 2011
  • ‘Mount Kisco in 4.8 seconds’, Mount Kisco Public Library, Jan 2011
  • Greenburgh Public Library in spring 2010

You can buy a book of his photograph here and you can find his poetry collection here in paperback or here as an ebook.

I found, however, that I couldn’t remember how we decided on the title for the collection so I asked Vito to remind me:

I liked the title because Carrie picked it and that was fantastic, that she'd thought about it enough to pick a title.  You told me when she read the book that she laughed out loud once or twice—which thrilled me as well. I had been using Behind the Scenes at the Penance Factory as a working title but I thought it was perhaps too. . . something.  I am still considering the line I came up with to support the title, 'Love is penance for the sin of wanting to be loved.'  Someday, I will write that down. 

Threadless Needles are useless except perhaps for causing pain.  The term 'Threadless,' as I used it, was a criticism that I'd delivered to myself.  A couple of years ago, I was looking back through 'the half-life of linoleum,' to see if I could find a common theme and mostly I could not. . . my work was, to my mind, threadless.

Threadless, perhaps. Pointless, no.

Work available online:




VitoVito Pasquale lives in New York State with his wife and two young sons. He worked for Reader’s Digest from 1983 to 2008 and since 2008 he has been serving as operations director for QSP, a division of Time Inc. He spent almost a fortnight trying to think of something else to say about himself and came up blank. I have no idea what that says.

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