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

Sunday 25 May 2014

My Biggest Lie


You want your crime to be greater than it is so you can excuse yourself from redeeming yourself. Excuse yourself from the hard work of getting on with your life. – Luke Brown, My Biggest Lie

The first (and, admittedly, only) time I’ve heard one-time-editor-turned-writer Luke Brown speak he was being interviewed by Nick Higham on the BBC programme Meet the Author. My wife said he sounded nervous. He did. Perhaps he was. Perhaps that’s just the way he talks. Suffice to say by this point I’d only got fifty pages into his debut novel My Biggest Lie and could see why he might have cause to be nervous since he—or at least the book’s protagonist (must try and remember these don’t necessary hold the same views)—had gone out of his way to offend and upset many of his fellow authors plus any members of the publishing industry he might’ve needed somewhere down the line to get his novel into print. I could only imagine at this juncture what he might’ve said further into the book about members of the press and the book-buying public but probably nothing good. If he had, good-natured Higham took no offence.

A taster then—editors’ apparent opinion of writers:

[W]riters [are a]wful people. Scavengers. Needy little vultures, picking around in creative writing classes, sending in expenses for dinners they had eaten on different dates and in different cities to the events they had not turned up for. Fine artists, the lot of them, experts in cover art. Parasites. Imperiously rude and/or sleazy to editorial assistants. Lazy readers of their own work. Hungry bastards. Reviewers of their friends. Reviewers of their rivals. Making young women cry. Making them sick, Making advances. Not earning advances. Making them pregnant. Making line graphs of Amazon rankings. Sending you these line graphs. Seeking plot and motive in them instead of their own flimsy storylines and characters. Accidentally ccing you into correspondence berating you to another needy little vulture. Being ‘glad in some way, that this mistake happened’. Never more than a metre away from the booze table at a book party. Obsequious chairs of literary events until the sixth drink in the follow-up dinner. Quoters of Goethe and Schiller. Owners of The Mammoth Book of German Aphorisms. Twitterers. Shitheads. Carrion-pickers. Slobs. Sociopaths. Laptop-dogs. Wolfes. Woolfs. Carvers. Lushes. Lishs. Gougers. Hacks. Mice. Lice. Writers, they were the worst, the most awful, we pitied them but loathed them more; because if it wasn’t for them, the job really would be a pleasure.

It says something about how little Liam thinks about himself that he would feel eligible to seek membership of this band of reprobates. The book he ends up writing, when he’s not busy working on the longest love letter in recorded history (mercifully we only get to read a short excerpt), is called My Biggest Lie which is also (confusingly) the title of Luke Brown’s book. Lying plays a major part in Luke’s book whereas Liam’s book ends up being one big lie but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The odd thing about Luke’s alter ego is not that he’s an incorrigible liar but that he tries to be so honest with his readers. I suppose every liar needs his father confessor, someone he can let down his hair with and that’s what I felt like. The question was: Was I going to let him off light with ten Hail Marys and five How’s Your Fathers? Not. Bloody. Likely.

All writers are liars. I’m a liar. I’m lying right now: I wasn’t on page fifty when I watched that TV programme; couldn’t tell you rightly what page I was on but as his wee rants about publishers and authors fall between pages 47 and 50 it had to be somewhere around that mark. I can’t help myself. The truth’s too ragged for my tastes. Lies have neat, straight edges and ‘page fifty’ had the right ring to it. People who say lies are messy don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re probably just bad liars.

Liam Wilson, for all he’s fibbed, fabricated and falsified frequently over the years, is not actually that good a liar. He lies because it’s expedient, accepted—even expected—behaviour, but his heart’s not really into it. I suppose this is the problem all writers have. We write to get to or express some kind of truth but we insist on trying to get there through the process of lying through our teeth. When we first encounter Liam his life’s in a mess. Had he been a better liar he might still have his girl, his friends and his career or maybe he would’ve been in prison rather than Buenos Aires. He’s there because Liam is actually a decent sort deep down who’s perfectly willing to accept the consequences of his actions (if caught out) and in his mind he deserves to be in exile. He cheated on the love of his life and was to some extent responsible for the death of his firm’s prize commodity, the Booker Prize-winning novelist Craig Bennett. While it is true he did cheat on his girlfriend he did not kill Craig Bennett. A heart attack killed Craig Bennett although the copious amounts of drugs and alcohol the man ingested in the hours prior to that attack certainly nudged things along. Now whether Liam could’ve prevented Craig having a heart attack (at least that night) is another matter entirely. And the answer to that question is probably: Yes. He was put in charge of him—although how ‘in charge’ one man can be expected to be of another is another matter entirely—and didn’t do a bang-up job of it. Clearly. Of course the only reason he wound up with such a prestigious client in the first place is because his boss, James Cockburn, managed to get himself defenestrated the day before, quite possibly—accounts differ widely—with the assistance of said client and is recuperating in hospital. So he’s not exactly a shining example.

“There is nothing so undignified as an editor who writes,” notes Liam but since Luke was an editor in a previous life one can’t help but think he’s also wagging a metafictional finger at himself; I imagine most novelists get to that point somewhere around the middle of their first novel when they wonder if they’re deluding themselves. Whether former editors feel it worse than the rest of us I can only imagine, but there’s clearly some of Luke in Liam and probably more than he’d like to admit, but then that goes for the rest of us too. “All fiction is autobiography, no matter how remote from the author's experience the tale seems to be.” So wrote the critic Millicent Bell in reference to A Farewell to Arms which is another one of those books where people can’t agree on the ratio of autobiographical to non-autobiographical content. I doubt, however, if Luke Brown has been (of felt he was) diary of a superflous manresponsible for the demise of any (in)famous authors recently but like most of us he’ll have been through a life-numbing breakup or two; a period of days, weeks or even months where your life’s lost its way and you’ve no idea if you’re coming or going. This started me thinking about Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man which led me neatly to Turgenev’s The Diary of a Superfluous Man. In Exile: The Sense of Alienation in Modern Russian Letters, David Patterson describes the recurring character of the superfluous man in Russian Literature as “a paradigm of a person who has lost a point, a place, and a presence in life: the superfluous man is the homeless man.” He goes on to quote from The Superfluous Man in Russian Letters where the authors list the typical characteristics of the superfluous man as being “weariness, boredom, indolence, self-orientation, self-pity and fear.” It’s the twenty-first century and not Russia so this is how Liam from Lancashire puts it:

Amid the agony of accepting and refusing to accept what I had always known was going to happen [i.e. his girlfriend’s going to dump him], I suspect I quite liked the portrayal of me here, the compartmentalised, enigmatic, multi-man. It is a sort of fun being a dickhead, that’s why there are so many of us. It wasn’t unique to me—did other people really reveal themselves truly to others? Were they better than me or did they just make a better job of pretending to be? I didn’t believe I was the only man who was so hungry, so weak.

Aleksandr Pushkin introduced the type in Eugene Onegin, the story of a Byronic youth who wastes his life, allows the girl who loves him to marry another and lets himself be drawn into a duel in which he kills his best friend. Not a million miles away from our Liam, eh?

Why Buenos Aires then? Because Bennett once lived there. Let’s be clear here, Liam and Craig weren’t livelong BFF’s or anything. They met the night Craig died and so literally only knew each other for a few hours but Liam has daddy issues and a connection was made:

Ten hours, whatever others might say, is long enough to come to love a man. In Buenos Aires, where he had written his first novel, I hoped I could wrap myself in his experiences and write mine. It was the only plot I could come up with, an escape and a penance rolled into one…


[U]nless I tell you otherwise, assume I am always crying.

It feels like most of the novel takes place in bars. It doesn’t. But it feels that way. I imagined, learning the book was set mainly in Argentina, that that would be the culture I would struggle to get but what I found hardest to relate to was the writer in the book. He’s not as bad as his earlier description but he is somewhere in there. I didn’t get him and I didn’t like him. I didn’t like his colleagues. I didn’t much care for any of the other writers in the book. Nor did I take to any of the friends Liam made whilst off finding himself or whatever he imagined he was doing. And believe you me, a character—even one who’s almost constantly stoned or drunk—has to work hard not to squeeze even a little bit of empathy out of me.

Grief and loss I get and I get that even dickheads feel grief and loss. That their being a dickhead is the cause of much of that grief and loss is neither here or there: pain is pain. By the end of the book Liam’s period of mourning looks as if it’s coming to an end; he’s turned the corner at least. Has he learned anything from it all? That I’m 200px-Charlienot so sure. Being a dickhead’s a hard thing to shake off. Just look at Craig Bennett. He was a dickhead until the day he died and James Cockburn, who continues to fill the role of Liam’s father figure, leaves a lot to be desired in that regard. Liam manages—by questionable means it has to be said—to find his way back home, even if it isn’t quite the home he left, but his associates are the same motley crew so I don’t see him not being a dickhead for long.

Fiction is full of loveable losers; affable chumps; the Charlie Browns of this world who never quite get the breaks they deserve and if Liam had been like that I might’ve had more time for him. As I said earlier, there is a decent bloke inside Liam and maybe if he’d stayed in Birmingham and not moved to London he might’ve hung onto that:

I’d arrived in London from a small press in Birmingham with a reputation of frugality, integrity and luck. Everyone loves a plucky indie. It made people at the conglomerates trying to poach our successful authors feel good about themselves knowing that we existed, that there was room for us. I was embraced at book parties. Have you met my mate Liam? People thought that I was a nice guy. I cared about writers. Well I always had a lot of compassion but outside of work it mostly overflowed in the wrong directions, to the people who least needed it. To the people who exhibited moral failings, by which I mean the people with the option to. The carnal people, the libertines, the charmers. The lookers, the liars, the reckless. The success went to my head. That’s the point of success. I was drawn to the promiscuous and the criminal, like my mentor and the other JC, and who knew London publishing would be such a fine place to find these two qualities?

Was who he was in Birmingham the real Liam or, as he starts to believe, a lie?

It was acid, the taste of the slow digestion of the person I’d pretended to be while the other person grew inside me, eating me at the same time as I was emulating his voice, his turn of phrase, laughing at his jokes. The more lies I told, the more that man grew familiar. He was no longer eating me alive. I was eating him.

In some respect this is a coming of age novel despite the fact the protagonist’s turned thirty. Not everyone makes the transition at seventeen and I suspect most of us hang onto our youth for longer than is seemly. Luke tries hard to be funny but I found Liam more funny-sad than anything else. I felt let down by him and by those who aided and abetted him. Fake it until you make it, they say. Easier said than done. You’re supposed to learn from your mistakes. I’m not certain Liam has or ever will. For a book that tries hard to be funny—and manages it some of the time—I came away from it rather sad and disappointed. Not in Luke Brown—he acquits himself well enough—but in humanity and let’s face it if there’s a way people can let you down they usually will. Isn’t that the truth of it?


Luke BrownNot much biographical data available for Luke. He grew up near Blackpool, Lancashire, and now lives in London. He was a former senior editor at Birmingham’s Tindal Street Press and still does freelance work. His Facebook page reveals little other than the fact he can play both the guitar and football although I suspect not at the same time. Either that or he likes sitting around holding guitars and hanging around football pitches. My Biggest Lie—which Canongate wittily chose to publish on National Tell a Lie Day—is his first novel. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Sunday 18 May 2014

Bed of Coals: an introduction to the poetry of Joseph Hutchison

Bed of Coals

My wife, happening upon my journal, said:
“Writers are crueller than normal people.”
—Joseph Hutchison, ‘March 10: “From an Unmailed Letter”’

W.S. Merwin opens his 1968 essay, ‘On Open Form’ with the following statement:

What is called its form may simply be that part of the poem that has directly to do with time: the time of the poem, the time in which it was written, and the sense of recurrence in which the unique moment of vision is set.

Reading that essay prompted Joseph Hutchison to write his own, ‘Aspects of Time in Poetry’ in which he draws a distinction between three kinds of time: empirical time, subjective time, and duration. It’s a thought-provoking article. Time, of course, is linear. Our perception of it may not always be accurate but tempis fugits on regardless. Memory handles time in its own perverse ways. As Joe puts it in ‘This Day’:

that time scatters, memory gathers up—
keepsakes, relics, talismans.

This is what makes his 1995 collection Bed of Coals (which has just been brought back into print by FutureCycle Press) such an interesting—by ‘interesting’ I mean ‘challenging’—read.

Unlike many poetry collections Bed of Coals has a storyline. It’s a multi-layered, discontiguous and spare one and one I struggled with at first; sadly—and masculinely—I’m a terribly linear person. In an author’s note at the start of the book Joe tries to explain the book’s structure:

Two different voices tell the following story. One belongs to an anonymous narrator, whose poems include my main character’s name—Vander Meer—in their titles. The second voice is Vander Meer’s own, and it surfaces in poems drawn from his “blue notebook” and in others written at a later date; the titles of these works are set in italics to differentiate them from the narrator’s. Vander Meer’s “blue notebook” entries, dated from March 22 of one year to March 21 of the next, are presented in the order Vander Meer himself chooses to read them. Readers who prefer plot to character are free to reconstruct the progress of Vander Meer’s crisis by reading the “blue notebook” poems in chronological order.

On reading through the collection I wondered about the third set of poems though—I couldn’t quite see how they fitted into the sequence—and so asked Joe to clarify how these were to be interpreted:

The other poems written by Vander Meer are—so my conceit goes—written as he contemplates the blue notebook poems. He is in dialogue with them, and with the person he was when in that downward spiral. These poems flesh out more of his story.

So, to clarify, we have Vander Meer’s story narrated from the outside (what I’m going to call ‘the objective poems’), his own thoughts as he’s immersed in the events recorded in a blue notebook (the subjective poems) and a third set where he looks back from having survived said events (the reflective poems); at least that’s my reading of them. I’ve no issues with any author providing instructions on how to read his or her book—perhaps more should—but once we have them we’re on our own for better or worse. This multi-layered approach is certainly different but it does screw with your general perception of time since the poems aren’t presented chronologically in terms of the events they describe or chronologically as they were written. I tried to work my way through the collection sequentially but lost the thread and so decided to read the poems in three blocks since I couldn’t work out how the objective and subjective timelines crossed.

As I was describing this organisation to my wife she reminded me of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and its structure. From the novel’s blurb:

Divorced with a young child, and fearful of going mad, Anna records her experiences in four coloured notebooks: black for her writing life, red for political views, yellow for emotions, blue for everyday events. But it is a fifth notebook—the golden notebook—that finally pulls these wayward strands of her life together.

Lessing in the book’s preface claimed that the most important theme in the novel is fragmentation; the mental breakdown that Anna suffers, perhaps from the compartmentalization of her life reflected in the division of the four notebooks, but also reflecting the fragmentation of society.

Razzle - John Ransom


The objective poems

There are thirteen poems in this group and although undated they appear to be presented in chronological order.

This isn’t prose and so we have to get by on scraps of biographical information and attempt to build up a picture. Vander Meer is a copy editor who aspires to be “an auteur”. As a child he struggled learning how to swim but did manage to learn how to float. It’s a strong and simple metaphor for a man whose life is going nowhere. He doesn’t even drive himself to work at this point; he gets the bus and when he gets off he struggles through the masses in much the same way he struggled through the water when trying to do the breast stroke. This is where we meet him in the opening poem of Bed of Coals musing to himself, “every skill / becomes second nature.” I suppose there’s some truth to that. They say you never forget how to ride a bike but when I swim nowadays I have to think about it; I’m not a natural swimmer and I, too, like Vander Meer, nurse some painful memories of learning to swim which I never did until I was about twelve and I only ever mastered the breast stroke.

Vander Meer’s colleagues say he’s not himself.
His clear, blue sky prose is all fog lately:
“Couldn’t sell steaks to a starving man!”


We’re into the second poem now. He’s distracted; his mind’s not on the job. Perhaps a leave of absence would help although we’re still none the wiser regarding what’s up with him. The third poem takes us into one of his dreams; dreams, mostly bad, form a major part of this collection (twenty-six poems if I counted right). He knows he’s dreaming because he’s found himself replacing Cary Grant in North by Northwest. This poem does set the time frame because when he wakes he finds there’s “a second-rate actor / in the White House” which means we’re talking the eighties. (Ronald Reagan was in office from January 20, 1981 – January 20, 1989.) The eighties was the Me! Me! Me! generation. It saw the rise of the yuppie. Binge buying and credit became a way of life. Labels were everything. Tom Wolfe dubbed the baby-boomers as the ‘splurge generation.’ It was a bad time to be seen as anything other than successful.

This dream itself is not as significant as the one we hear about in the next poem ‘VANDER MEER IN TRANSIT’ in which, on the bus again, he overhears a couple talking:

“I took a night course on dreaming,”
she said. “If you dream it once,
it’s not prophetic. It’s just working out
                    “And what if you dream
the dream more than once?”
she nodded, “it’s time to pay attention.”

This reminds him of a recurring dream in which his genitals are ripped off in the shower, a dream he first had “two years before his marriage failed.” He decides to call in sick.

In the next poem ‘ORPHIC VANDER MEER’ Vander Meer’s back in bed dreaming. This time it’s about having sex with someone whose marriage is collapsing. And also her faith it seems. Who is this person? Clearly not his wife.

In ‘VANDER MEER’S REVISION’ we’re at the halfway point, August—the sequence runs from March to March remember—and he’s alone during a heat wave. It’s a year on from when his wife told him:

“You want her? Your little bitch? Go
to her! Go to your bitch!

And yet it’s not as simple as that:

                                 So he left,
not explaining he was leaving for no one.
How could he speak that unreasonable truth?

What’s going on here? He’s cheated on his wife but he’s not leaving her for this other woman? It also suggests that it took a year for their marriage to get to this point, that it failed a full year earlier but something—momentum? habit?—kept things running.

In ‘VANDER MEER HOLDING ON’ he now has a car, a “new / used Ford” and is sitting outside what used to be the family home watching his daughter on her swing, the growing distance between him and his family symbolised by the last two line of the final stanza:

But his daughter, sailing higher, shrieks
with joy...and he grips the wheel—
white-knuckled Vander Meer! Shutting his eyes,
hearing his wife laugh and call, “Hold on!
Honey, hold on tight!” Her every push
pushing him farther out....

Notice the pun? Pushing father out? This distance is tackled again in the next poem, ‘VANDER MEER CRYING FOWL’:

               Thus, her voice

on the phone—its hunger repressed
uneasily into choice etiquette: a proper
knife-and-fork tenderness.

Assuming this is his wife we’re talking about here. I’ll come back to this.

More dream imagery in ‘SAINT VANDER MEER AND THE DRAGON’:

                      Oh, he fears
sleep! For she comes to him in sleep.
“What I must do I will do,” she whispers.

Things are starting to get to Vander Meer in ‘VANDER MEER AT SUNDOWN’:

Thinks Vander Meer, All light’s
receding from me like the galaxies.

In ‘VANDER MEER AT SEA’ it’s still August. Which August though? A year after the break up? He happens on “a note / in her firm cursive,” directions he’s given her over the phone at some point. But who is the “her”? No, I think this is before the breakup of his marriage. I think this is him with the other woman and she’s the one breaking up with him. So maybe the voice on the phone a few poems back was his lover. Hard to be sure. In the bio on his blog Joe writes:

In the all the years of my writing life, I've responded to and aspired to a quality in poetry that I can only call "clarity." Not that I'm interested in clarity at the expense of honest complexity; I despise those bland accounts of near-death sailing "into the Light." Light is not always benign: it blinds as often as it offers revelation, as anyone who's grown up in my part of the world would know. That contradiction, if it is one (it could be that contradiction exists only in the mind), fascinates me continually.

Light’s a major theme in this collection. It feels like hardly a poem fails to mention it at least in passing: moonlight, “broken light”, “the grey TV light”, “shallow light”, daylight, “the effects of light”, “town lights”, lightning, twilight, “morning light”, “cloudlight”, “festive lights”, “windowlight”, “ripples of light”, “headlights”. It’s something I’ve noted in my own poetry, light as a metaphor for truth. I think it’s a good metaphor even if it is a bit obvious. Sometimes it’s very clear what’s going on with Vander Meer but at other times not as much; not every poem is equally illuminated. The problem is, by ‘clarity’ Joe doesn’t mean ‘transparency’. In an interview he expanded on the above:

[C]larity isn’t accessibility. (I’m not sure what accessibility means, because what’s accessible to one reader may not be accessible to another. So when we talk about accessibility, we’re getting into statistics: what percentage of readers understand this poem on first reading? On second? On third? Etc. It’s a useless term.) Clarity is also not an absence of ambiguity. Blake is notoriously ambiguous, but no poet writes with more clarity.

So—I’ve said what clarity isn’t but not what it is. I would say that my sense of clarity goes back to the medieval meaning of the word—“glory” or “divine splendour.” … Moments of clarity come through the senses but carry us beyond them.

So, perhaps rather than ‘clarity’ what he’s looking for in his poems—and therefore what we should be looking for—are insights, little epiphanies, flashes. Of course when Joe reads these poems he knows exactly what they’re about but as much as he’s trying to allow us inside his head he doesn’t always manage it. And, oddly enough, neither does the omniscient narrator. But here what’s going on seems reasonably clear:

“I can’t,” she said. It was simple—
like a blunt gaff to the chest. “I just
can’t.... Not right now. Not yet,”
she said. And he said he felt the same:
“It’s my kid,” he lied, thinking—
I am going to die....

In ‘VANDER MEER AT BOTTOM’ we can see him beginning to fall apart. For once he’s lying in bed and not dreaming:

Sunken like a river rock, Vander Meer reads
the ripples of light that passing cars
scrawl across his bedroom wall. No
breathing beside child’s
next door.

Here’s probably as good a place as any to ask: Why Vander Meer? It’s an odd name. Why not Smith or Jones? In an e-mail Joe explained:

[T]he character’s last name is Vander Meer; I give him no first name. The name itself means “from the lake (or sea)”—an underwater man. I didn’t know this when I named him, though; the name just surfaced (!) one day in what became the eponymous first poem. I think I was influenced by Louis Simpson, whose poems I was reading at the time; he has a harrowing one called 'Vandergast and the Girl', and in the original edition I included lines from that poem as an epigraph from that poem: “What do definitions and divorce-court proceedings / have to do with the breathless reality?”

“Sunken like a river rock”—this really struck me because I have a whole series of poems I refer to as The Drowning Man Poems which revolve around a man who’s submerged in emotions, who feels like he’s drowning but never actually drowns. The word ‘drown’ appears four times in this collection and there are eighteen references to water as well as numerous references to seas, waves, floods, rivers, lakes and streams.

It’s on nights like this he pours himself into his blue notebook:

of wandering mindlessness...images
gushing forth, lovely and terrible
by turns....

This has to end somewhere. And it does in ‘VANDER MEER’S DUPLICITY’:

Vander Meer at the mirror, mouth
propped wide with a gun barrel
index finger, thinking:
easeful death”...playing
homo ludens to the hilt. Who was it
said, a good poem always takes
the top of one’s head off?

Emily Dickinson said, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” in case you wondered. Homo Ludens or Man the Player is a book written in 1938 by Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga. It discusses the importance of the play element of culture and society. Is Vander Meer a player? It depends what you mean by ‘player’. He’s not a player as in a powerful participant in some major concern, a man to be reckoned with. Nor do I think the definition in the Urban Dictionary fits here either:

A male who is skilled at manipulating ("playing") others, and especially at seducing women by pretending to care about them, when in reality they are only interested in sex. Possibly derived from the phrases "play him for a fool", or "play him like a violin". The term was popularized by hip-hop culture, but was commonly recognized among urban American blacks by the 1970s.

But he is still playing. What Huizinga says at the start of his book is noteworthy though:

In play there is something "at play" which transcends the immediate needs of life and imparts meaning to the action. All play means something. If we call the active principle that makes up the essence of play "instinct", we explain nothing; if we call it "mind" or "will" we say too much.

There are numerous theories about play but any man who’s having an affair is playing with fire. You tell me one kid who doesn’t like to play with fire though. Games have rules, even the games kids play where they make them up as they go along, and what’s the point of a game if there’s not a winner? And if there’s a winner there have to be losers.

It turns out though that the blue notebook is not the only thing Vander Meer’s been writing since he found himself alone; there’s also, apparently, “a cracked memoir he calls Bed of Coals”.

And so ends what I’m calling the ‘objective poems’. They’re bullet points really. They bring us to an ending but endings are only convenient stopping points for storytellers; there’s always more to tell. Maybe when we read the poems from the blue notebook things will become clearer.

Tryptich I - John Ranson


The subjective poems (the poems from the blue notebook)

There are twenty-three of these beginning with one dated March 22nd. The tone here is quite, quite different. For example here’s the first poem in its entirety:

Stop Slaughtering Baby Seals or No More Nukes—
pathos of loving what we can’t love enough.
“When they split up,” some voice at the office,
“he joined The Alliance to Protect Snail Darters.
She worked door-to-door for Z.P.G.” Today,
following a night of smashed glasses
and food-slopped floors, our three-year-old
stared down my bitter breakfast silence:
“You’re not screaming now.” My eyes burned wet
as an oil-slicked dolphin’s.... Where are you,
Committee to Preserve Self-Devouring Spouses?
Yet I have kissed her mouth most tenderly—
mouth, breasts, curve of belly...cavorting
in a surf of sheets. And later, breathing
to sleep in the depths, I’ve dreamed in slogans:
No More Nukes! Stop the Slaughter! Save the Whales!

Quite the rant and confusing as hell. The people at the office are talking about a breakup in the past tense and yet Vander Meer’s still having breakfast with his kid in the morning (who we now know is about three) after what looks like a serious row with his wife the night before. So clearly—okay, maybe not so clearly—his work colleagues are talking about some other couple.

On June 20th Vander Meer’s clearly still at home with his wife. A poem entitled ‘Lifting My Daughter’ provides the evidence:

As I leave for work she holds out her arms, and I
bend to lift her...always heavier than I remember,
because in my mind she is still that seedling bough
I used to cradle in one elbow. Her hug is honest,
fierce, forgiving.

On June 21st he writes a poem called ‘Long Distance Call’. Since no one is named in these poems and the rest of the players are all women—his wife, his daughter, his lover—you really do have to pay attention to the context to work out who the ‘shes’ and ‘hers’ are. I’m assuming here he’s talking about his lover because he talks about one breath…

drawing us into a room
where we lie moving

slowly at first
tongue to tongue
in the house of longing

They’re still there three weeks later:

July 9

            from the Blue Notebook

In bed we listened
to sleepwalking rain
drawn to the window
by your wetness

And they’re still at it on the 15th:

Too treble for ears, a gracenote’s summons
feathered through our brains, piped us
to the pied guestbed quilt. Spreading towels
against stain, she baptized my bald homage
in water holy past pun or punishment. Our method—
pure rhythm; as a rosined bow thrills the gut
to gladden the soul, so the lingua franca,
pentecostal stammering of our hearts
renewed us.

They know what they’re doing. They know other people will be affected—“[s]pouses, friends, hurt families”—but now is not the time to think about all that; they’re caught up in The Game (hard not to think about Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles here). It’s noteworthy that they adopt the rhythm method of birth control even though she sounds like a lapsed Catholic. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that in Joe’s ordering of the collection these poems are presented in reverse order, from the height of the affair reading back to its beginning.

By August 8th the passion seems to have died down:

Yet our words are clinical,
sobering. We’ve sworn off love,
taken the cure...and toast
ourselves with chilled mineral water—

The affair would appear to have lasted a month which is backed up by what we learn later in one of the reflective poems, ‘Snapshots’:

That month’s like a peach cut in half
Even the deep ragged wound is sweet

although in ‘Fullness’ he talks about five weeks:

Living on beer and coffee, we
burned off ten pounds each in half
as many weeks (in love, the body
grows lean to feed the heart).

We know from the objective poems that the breakup happens sometime in August but none of the dated poems from the blue notebook of that period deal with it although from what I remember of my own first breakup that’s not that surprising; real life issues get in the way. By September 23rd the reality of his situation is starting to hit home though:

September 23

            from the Blue Notebook

Cinching my belt to the fourth
notch—and still it’s loose!
(How many weeks now
since I’ve touched you?)

These early poems are quite detached. The reality of what’s happened has hit him but only on an intellectual level. By December 22nd he’s starting to wallow; it is the Christmas period after all and a hard time for the newly separated and divorced:

                            I’d like to breathe,
but can’t. My jaw goes stone at the hinge.
Say what I feel? All words are trash
in my throat’s choked swash;
emotion’s current will not flow—

By January he’s starting to become self-pitying. And his Valentine’s Day poem is dark:

Sworn vows gone into the ground with your love;
from us the world inherits nothing but dust.

Indeed February’s a bad month. No less than four poems. As March comes round he’s starting to realise how useless his poetry is:

                                      Am I cruel,
then? Draining our lives into language
where even joy is suffering...? My love,
I suffer words for the normal joy they redeem—
and therefore hope they’ll make you suffer:
you, kinder than my heart can stand.

The poems in this section are a mixture of lyrical and narrative. Only their dates really provide any context. We have roughly six months before the breakup and six months afterwards. Yes, they do fill in some of the details but it’s hard to be sure.

Nervous Apparition - John Ransom


The reflective poems

There are twenty-seven poems in this section and it’s impossible to know in what order they were written. The first ‘Fighting Grief’ is helpful. It tells us that his lover was married at the time of the affair. I’d misread the January 29th poem, assuming when Vander Meer referred to “her husband” he was referring to himself in the third person. This is what was so confusing, not knowing which woman was being referred to but I don’t suppose it’s unreasonable for him to miss both his wife and his mistress. What is curious in this poem is that he says he’s fighting not guilt as one might’ve expected but “grief”. What is he grieving? The end of his marriage?

‘Lethe’ provides some clarification. It’s describing something that happens in April, so a couple of months before the affair:

“You pulled back,” said his wife. “You
were passionate, then—just gone.”
The sky curved above their house like a tree,
ash or willow, thick-leaved, many-branched.
She said, “Is there something wrong?”


He thought, What could be wrong?

By the time he responds his wife’s dozed off. He’s been reprieved. In Greek mythology, Lethe was one of the five rivers of Hades It flowed around the cave of Hypnos and through the Underworld, where all those who drank from it experienced complete forgetfulness. Lethe was also the name of the Greek spirit of forgetfulness and oblivion, with whom the river was often identified.

The poems in this section are more level-headed than those in the blue notebook. They’re not, however, detached reportage as in the objective poems. One of the most moving is this one:

Pausing Outside My Apartment

Sun must be filling the room.
One thin ray is streaming
from the peephole.

Daylight and dust.

You can feel the earth
turning under you at times.
The roundness of anguish.

Daylight and dust.

It’s like a dream.
The key turns my hand.
I open my life and go in.

This poem more than any other in this collection struck a chord with me. Although I wasn’t to blame for the breakup of my own first marriage there was a point before we split up that the reality of my situation hit me. This was how I expressed it at the time:


One day he tried too hard and broke it.
He patched it up
and it still worked,
though not as well.

The wheels still went round.

No one noticed any change
till one day it fell to pieces
and they all wondered why.

27 June 1982 – 23 September 1982

The first date is when I wrote the poem. The second was the day my wife left me. I believe very strongly that all poetry is completed by its readers. There will be some people who’re reading this just now who have never been married and have never even broken up with a girl or boyfriend. They’ve never experienced a pivotal moment like this. Reading on I came across ‘Detour’, a prose poem I suppose although I’ve never been good at differentiating between flash fiction and prose poetry, which I also related to. Vander Meer’s driven miles to sit outside this woman’s house. He’s listening to the radio or trying to:

The radio’s garbled music crackles in and out of its channel. No use twisting the knob: something inside is loose—a broken connection....

“Love,” he said, “is a way of being. It includes emotions. Attitudes. Values. It includes ideas. This is why we can’t repress love. It absorbs the repression, which changes the relationship but doesn’t destroy it.”

I click off the radio…

After he gets to the woman’s house—we learned in the June 3rd entry in the blue notebook that it’s a long drive, “a hundred miles [from] what’s left of home”—all is dark so he leaves a note and as he’s driving away he thinks (presumably about his wife and not this other woman): Something inside is loose. … Something inside is broken. This is exactly how I felt with my first marriage. Actually when I read this piece the first time I misread the last line. I read “Something inside love is loose. Something is broken.” That’s how I felt.

Just as I wrote my marriage poem months before the actual official breakup Vander Meer starts making entries in his notebook. In the poem ‘On Opening the Blue Notebook’ he writes:

When I picture you, I hear
such gears engage—as if thought
were a kind of wheelwork, routinely
spinning dreams into images,
love into dreams....

Interesting that both Joe and I would compare a marriage to a machine, and one that can break down.

Of course looking back it’s easy to misremember things. We see that in ‘Recalling the Solstice’ when he writes:

Grass and junipers grey with frost
just before dawn. The dark grey too,
with a mist drifted off the river.
(In language it seems symbolic,
but out my window it was only cold
cloudiness turned up hauntingly

over night.)

and also in ‘A Box of Snapshots’. As he looks at a photo of him standing in the shadow of a willow tree he thinks:

[I]t’s me as I am
in the willow tree’s shadow, me
in the shade of my parent’s house—
but lit by a knowledge so bright
I have to shut my eyes to see.

One might think when we reflect we become more level-headed and indeed the poems in this group are calmer and more reflective but there’s also a danger that the imagination will take over. I’m no brain scientist but the evidence is building: memories and imaginings are two sides to the same mental function whatever you want to call it, cognition I suppose. If we’re not careful we attribute meaning to things that essentially were meaningless acts in the first place which is not to suggest they were not emotive acts.

The title poem comes next, ‘Bed of Coals’, which is also, remember, the title of his “cracked memoir”. It’s set in June and in it he’s a carny; he runs The Calypso:

                                                            thirty cars held to a hub
by hydraulic spokes whose festive lights flash
as the motor drives it all around.

It’s a place full of activity and noise and yet he describes it as the eye of the storm, an oasis in all this chaos where he starts “to hear her breathing beyond the noise”. This is similar imagery to that used in ‘Drunk Again in the Dark Grass’ where he writes:

For once I want to listen
past the waves. To fall silent,
let moonlight soak me to the bone!

He’s not a carny, he’s a copy editor. For once this is not a dream because he tells us right at the very start that he can’t sleep; he’s tossing “like a flame on [a] bed of coals.” Obviously this isn’t the memoir. Perhaps, however, this is where he got the title for the memoir.

‘Fullness’ is an interesting poem since clearly Vander Meer’s lost much getting to this point. The second half reads:

                           I keep
trying to swallow the fishbone
moments of the past—as if
I could live on loss.
Yet it isn’t loss,
but fullness recalled
to fullness again: my heart
no starveling, though it hurts—
aches like a bulging net
I strain to raise: memories
hauled up over and over, quick
and seething in the drowning air.

I have to say I’ve read these few lines over and over again. I feel they may well be pivotal but I’m not sure I get them. It’s an awkward sentence which doesn’t help. Try reading it parsed as prose:

Yet it isn’t loss, but fullness recalled to fullness again: my heart no starveling, though it hurts—aches like a bulging net I strain to raise: memories hauled up over and over, quick and seething in the drowning air.

‘Beyond Sorrow’ was another poem that reminded me of one mine. Joe writes:

In the crowd a girl’s face
not yours but eyes
like yours


enough now
to love you in other faces
and feel my heart silently rise
inside me

I wrote:

When we broke up
I wondered where he'd go:

He went to look for me
in other women.

I think it’s not unlike what happens when your wife falls pregnant. Suddenly there are these pregnant women everywhere as if it’s a fashion thing and your wife’s the trend-setter. When you no longer have access to a loved one, can no longer touch her on a whim or see her naked suddenly that’s what you want and that’s what you look for, more of the same. You forget all the reasons why things didn’t work out with her. You want to press RESET and do it all over again and maybe this time it’ll work out.

‘The Voice of Reason’ tries to be heard:

The error, of course, is thinking
there’s a way to live your life,
as one might “drive a car.” Life
is what drives you. Such a stinking

shame...having so little control!
And yet all the time resisting it—

September comes round in ‘This Day’, the final poem in this group and the final poem in the collection and where do we find Vander Meer?

On the corner, anachronistic in mid-September,
a girl in jogging shorts...tanned legs
glistening with sparse, honey-pale down,
her thighs strong, smooth as buttered rum.

How to keep from staring through her to find you?

September when? Not the September following the August when his wife told him to go. No, this is the September after that most likely. A year and a bit on. His life has fallen to pieces. He’s played the game and lost. He’s hit bedrock. He’s stuck a gun in his mouth and now he’s ready to get back on the bike again. Too many of us define ourselves through other people, through our parents, our spouses, our heroes. Is history going to repeat itself?

Skeltz2 - John Ransom


The collection as a whole

After having chopped up this collection to suit my ends—albeit with the approval of the author—I then went back and reread it from the beginning in the order he had chosen. It all boils down to a single word: intent. How do you read a single Joe Hutchison poem let alone an entire book of them?

Joe has a few things to say on this subject of intention. From his blog:

There may be many other good reasons to read, but I don't see how any reader can pretend that the author's intentions are irrelevant. They are always the substance and the structuring motive behind the work. – A Conversation in Progress II

Surely the primary purpose of reading any work is to understand its author’s intention (again, broadly conceived), in the hope of better understanding our own. – A Conversation in Progress

[W]e owe the authors we care about the duty of intentional engagement. If they’re going to speak to us, we have to bring them our questions: we have to inquire about their intentions and look to their texts, their lives, and their historical periods — and, of course, our own honest responses to their work — for help. Otherwise it’s all just a frivolous game. – A Conversation in Progress

So what’s Joe’s intent here? In his essay ‘I Have Seen the Future and It Is Prose’ Joe writes that he believes that “poetry … exists in order to express those complex areas of the individual psyche that ordinary prose … is not designed to express” and in this interview:

Mindfulness is another word for love. It’s passionate and purposeful. It engages. If we think about what it’s like to fall in love, we’ll notice that it disarranges our lives. All the old habits and routines break down!


Mindfulness is what poetry is all about, of course. Poetry is the result of the poet reclaiming awareness from habit and routine and putting the result in words that can help a reader do the same thing. The poet’s long dead, but through engagement with the mindful poem, the living reader can reclaim awareness in his or her own life. Poetry is a kind of sympathetic magic.

And in 'Fists and Flashing Eyes':

[A]n authentic reading of an authentic poem influences the reader’s idea of reality …Reading it is a dangerous activity. For if each new poem, each new imaginatively structured byte of language, influences our experience of the program — why, individuals might actually come to believe that their subjective experience of the world is more real than the one the information society’s selling.

Intent is clearly not a simple thing. The problem is made clear in the first quote when he uses the adjective ‘complex’. Complex things are, by their very nature, hard to express is simple terms or when they are they lose much in the translation, e.g. E = mc2. Human emotions can be similarly reduced— fear, joy, love, sadness, surprise, anger—but these simplifications are just as unhelpful. Emotions have to be experienced. And even then they can be hard to pin down. I’m almost fifty-five and I still don’t understand why I’ve done half the things in my life. So why should Joe (or his proxy Vander Meer) be any different?

I only had one question when I first opened this book. It was a rather vulgar one: What’s the heck’s this all about? I refined it quickly enough and soon I had a whole ... what is the collective noun for questions? ‘shitload’ I think … some of which I’ve managed to answer above. But one I haven’t been able to answer is: What was Joe’s intent? I sat down with the intention of understanding as much of this text as I could. What I discovered was that I was not alone in thinking the way I do. Joe—assuming there is some autobiographical element to this collection—and I have been in some of the same places or similar enough. I’ve never put a gun in my mouth but I have hit rock bottom.

In his essay ‘Plains Light’ Joe puts forth the proposition that all writers are influenced by their sense of place with the possible exception of Ezra Pound—“[t]here’s no trace of Idaho in Pound’s poetry”—but Glasgow’s a million miles away from Denver (actually it’s 4375 miles) and I have to say I imposed my own environment on the poems. Never, not for one second, did they make me think of anywhere but an abstract here—mentions of “Oregon’s coastal pines”, “a shaggy pasture / in Nebraska” or “the Pacific breeze” slipped past me and it wasn’t until I went back through the book specifically looking for them that I gave the notion of place a second thought—although I think that’s to their advantage. Marriage is a universal concept and there won’t be a country on the planet where someone’s not cheating on their spouse right this minute.

Memory is collagelike. Mine’s a dog’s breakfast if I’m being honest. But an honest recollection is never going to be neat. It’s going to be kluged together from misremembrances and imaginings with the odd bone fide fact thrown in for good measure like the fact that his wife’s iron’s a Sunbeam (there’s got to be something about light going on there). Of course the things we forget to remember are trivialities (to us) like what we looked like at the time. Vander Meer’s description of himself is “passably human, almost alert” and that’s it. There’s a lot we don’t ever find out about Vander Meer, we know he’s “no Christian” but basic stuff like how old he is is bypassed; we learn that he once owned a VCR and has seen Victor Victoria but he never sees fit to mention his daughter’s name. This is, of course, typical of most poetry but I would’ve liked just a bit more exposition here. What, for example, are we to make from his “80 proof adolescence”?

On the whole though the poetry here is very accessible—I’m talking about individual poems here, many of which have already been published on their own—and there’s a lot to enjoy in this collection although it does require time spent on it which most readers won’t be willing to do. Their loss you might say and perhaps but I don’t think the ordering of the poems will help many. Since I’d agreed to write about the collection I was committed to getting to the bottom of it. Few readers will be as driven. But that doesn’t mean you’ll waste your time with this book. Far from it. And just because the poetry is accessible does not mean it’s superficial. The Syrian poet Adonis has reportedly said, “Real poetry requires effort because it requires the reader to become, like the poet, a creator. Reading is not reception.” This chimes with something Joe’s old English teacher told him and which he’s clearly taken on board:

She insisted that poetry, if read with intense imagination instead of simply being registered and sorted like data in a well programmed computer, changes the way we experience the world. Themes, symbols, the techniques of prosody, all are secondary to the fact of the poem as a structured experience. “The reader’s responsibility,” said Mrs. Van, her flashing eyes taking in the whole classroom full of college-bound faces, “your responsibility is to live through that poem with as much imagination as you can muster.”

Readers with some imagination and the right baggage will find much here they can relate to. And if, like me, only one poem really calls out to you I don’t think Joe will be unduly disappointed.

You can read a selection of poems from the book here.


JoeAspensOffCenterCrop300Bed of Coals is Joseph Hutchison’s third full-length collection and was originally published in 1995 by the University of Colorado Press. It was selected by Wanda Coleman as the winner of the 1994 Colorado Poetry Award. The cover art was created by California artist John C. Ransom and it’s from his site I’ve borrowed the illustrations for this essay; they are not a part of the book. 

In total Joe has published some fifteen collections of poems, including Marked Men, Thread of the Real and The Earth-Boat. He co-edited, with Andrea L. Watson, the FutureCycle Press anthology Malala: Poems for Malala Yousafzai, proceeds of which benefit the Malala Fund to support girls’ education. He makes his living as a commercial writer and as an adjunct professor of graduate-level writing and literature at the University of Denver’s University College. He and his wife, yoga instructor Melody Madonna, live in the mountains southwest of Denver, in fact he’s lived nearly all his life “on the western margin of the plains, between the gnarled wall of the Rockies and the Colorado flatlands.”

Sunday 11 May 2014

Used poetry

There are three difficulties in authorship: to write anything worth publishing, to find honest men to publish it, and to find sensible men to read it. – Charles Caleb Colton

I think it’s time someone put things into perspective. A while ago I had a poem rejected because it appeared in a comment I made to someone online. Okay, in the strictest sense, it is now in the public domain (which is how they found it) but seriously since when does that count as published? How many people bar the blog’s owner will have been bothered to read down through all the comments and seen my wee poem? And let’s say that this webzine, the webzine that just rejected my poem, hadn’t been as diligent and had gone ahead and published my poem in a couple of months’ time what are the odds of someone coming along and saying, “Hey, I think I saw that poem in the comments of a blog I read a couple of years back.”

Sites differ on what they consider ‘published’:

  • Poetry: We cannot consider anything that has been previously published or accepted for publication, anywhere, in any form. Work that has appeared online is considered to have been previously published and should not be submitted.
  • Rattle does not accept work that has been previously published, in print or online (we do not consider self-publishing to personal blogs or Facebook as publication).
  • Qarrtsiluni does not consider written work or video that has been previously published in online or print journals, books or anthologies. We do, however, consider work that has only been posted on an author’s blog, personal website, or personal channel on a video upload site such as YouTube or Vimeo, because we think such online sharing constitutes a vital part of the creative process for a growing number of writers and filmmakers, and we want to encourage that.
  • Sentinel Poetry Quarterly: Generally we discourage submissions of previously published work. If we feel strongly about a previously published work we may solicit it. If your work has been published elsewhere and you feel it has not been given the exposure it deserves, and you feel strongly about it, by all means submit it, but please mention where and when it was first published.

Of course they’re under no obligation to publish anything. They can and do make up the rules as they go along. Some sites only publish poems under a certain length, some want nothing but religious poetry whereas others are particularly interested in poetry written in traditional forms. None of that is wrong. People are free to publish what they want and if they don’t want to publish what they consider “previously published” then so be it. All I’m saying is that we need to be realistic about all of this. There are millions upon millions of websites out there. God alone knows how many of them publish poetry but there will be thousands and, as was always the case with small press print journals, most won’t survive more than a few issues and are lucky if more than a handful of people look at the magazine who aren’t in the magazine themselves or related to or friends of someone whose work has appeared therein. There are sites where my poems have appeared and presumably (by that I mean ‘hopefully’) been read by more than just the site’s owner and me and now they’re gone. Ask yourself: when was the last time you trawled through an archive of poetry looking for the hidden gem?

I had five poems published in writers bloc back in 2011. The site’s no longer there and so your chance to read those poems has gone. Pfft! I can’t offer them to most sites because they’re been “previously published” and so that’s that. I tried using WayBack Machine but I got a message: Page cannot be crawled or displayed due to robots.txt. I can access their robots.txt file but who cares; the poems are gone. So, what’s to stop me offering them elsewhere and maintaining they’re never been published?

Here’s a poem that has been published online by Gloom Cupboard:

As Is

This is a
used poem.
It is in
good condition,
is complete and

No words are missing and
though they have
all been read before
the previous owner
was careful not to
read too much into them.

The poem will make sense
but it must
be said it doesn't
quite mean what it used to
and it may require
some reader attention.

What you see
is what you
get but what
you end up with
is completely
up to you.

16th February 2008

BBC-Radio-1Poems don’t go off. No matter how many people have read them before you get to them they’re as fresh as the day the poet completed them. That a poem can be found using a search engine is neither here nor there. No one’s going to look for it. It’s been read by the only dozen or hundred people who are ever going to read it and it’ll never be looked at again. And that’s just wrong. Imagine if Radio One played a record once and that was your lot; you never got to hear that track again unless you had the foresight to tape that broadcast. I, personally, don’t see anything wrong with an author trying to get as many people to read his or her work. I’ve a box full of old print magazines going back to the seventies full of perfectly serviceable poems, poems that deserve to be read again. Quite a few were published more than once because back in the day I didn’t have a clue and just kept sending out the same stuff. I got a letter once, responding to a submission, from the editor of Trends telling me that he’d seen one of the poems I’d sent him in another journal which took me aback; I was so struck by the fact someone had read one of my poems and remembered it. But he took the poem anyway.

Okay let’s play devil’s advocate here. Let’s say one of my poems has appeared in one of my blog posts. Has it been published, I mean really published? Or has it been self­-published? There are those who say that self-publishing’s not real publishing because there’s no gatekeeper and if that’s the case then why are they making such a fuss about it? Just saying.

Eileen Tabios, publisher of Meritage Press and editor/publisher of the review Galatea Resurrects, had this to say over on the Poetry Foundation site in an article appropriately entitled Just Get the Poems Out There:

One of the healthiest elements about poetry blogging is how poetry blogland more accurately mirrors the nature of Poetry than has traditional canon-making poetic machinery. There have always been more poets and poems than those marble-ized in Norton anthologies, “best of” anthologies, et al. . . . There is no centre—or there are many centres—in poetry.

I have a number of friends who are poets and they’re usually friends with a bunch of other poets who are in turn friends with some more poets and many of them are friends with me. Considering the huge number of poets out there I don’t actually feel that I’m in contact with more than a handful, not exactly a clique but there’s a lot of common ground; for one thing most are British. I would also guess that most of us are maxed-out when it comes to online friends. We can’t follow all the ones we’ve subscribed to and their Twitter feeds just pour by. No one’s looking for more to do than they already have to do. We like it when new stuff comes our way but it usually comes our way via one of our existing friends and so, yes, the group expands but that expansion is offset by those who’ve decided they’ve had their fill with the blogosphere and have gone off to give real life another go.

So here’s all I’m saying: Let common sense prevail. If you’re happy simply to see your poem in print and whoever reads it is whoever reads it then fine—I guess any reader who isn’t you is a bonus—but if you’ve written a good poem (hell, it might even be a great poem)—then doesn’t it hurt to know that that’s it, the only other time it might see the light of day is if you include it in a collection and how many people are going to be champing at the bit to read that? Probably the only ones will be the ones who read the poem when it was first published anyway. Such is the state of modern poetry.

billy-collinsThere’s a very interesting article here concerning print runs. Everyone knows that poetry doesn’t sell. A print run of 200-300 from a traditional publisher appears to be about the norm unless you’re Billy Collins. That’s nothing. So what if another two or three hundred get to read it online as well. That’s still nothing. And if there happens to be an overlap, maybe a couple of those who bought the book, do you honestly think they’d feel cheated to encounter the selfsame poem online? Might they not think: Hm, I’ve seen this poem before. If some other editor thought it was worth publishing maybe it’s a better poem than I first thought. Maybe I should read it again a bit more carefully. It’s not like a painting. Two or three hundred people already own a copy of that poem. That’s the nature of poetry.

The whole copyright thing is all fine and well when you’re being paid for permission to use your work. I can understand a magazine being a wee bit fussy if they’re forking out cash even if the only other people to read that poem beforehand might’ve been a couple of dozen Brits three or four years earlier. But most online magazines don’t pay. Yes, it’s still technically publishing but why not think about it as promoting? A poem is like a review. It demonstrates what that poet can do and is an encouragement to readers to seek out more and maybe fork out a few quid on a chapbook or something.

If you run a magazine all I’m asking is that you think about revising your submission guidelines. Maybe refuse any pre-published within a set time frame, say six months or a year. The face of the Internet changes constantly. Hell, a week on it’s barely recognisable. And we only read what’s in front of our faces because that’s all we have time for. Give poets a second chance, that’s all I’m saying.

Sunday 4 May 2014

Au Reservoir


You mark my words, Georgie, total victory is in sight – Guy Fraser-Sampson, Au Reservoir

As the title suggests this is a goodbye novel. It’s Guy Fraser-Sampson’s third and final crack at recreating the world of Mapp and Lucia and he goes out in style. All of his three novels, Major Benjy, Lucia on Holiday and now Au Reservoir—au reservoir being the customary farewell proffered by residents of Tilling—are stylish affairs that relish verbal felicities in the same manner as Major Benjy would savour a chota peg of whisky or George Pillson might admire a white waistcoat with onyx buttons. This is a world where etiquette, decorum, good form, taste and propriety not only all still mean something but mean everything. The worst thing one can be seen to do is behave improperly. Or at least to get caught out behaving that way. Much impropriety takes place in this final battle of wills between Emmeline Pillson—affectionately known as Lucia (and, on occasions even more affectionately, as Lulu)—and her arch-rival Elizabeth Mapp-Flint. It is a battle royal that has raged across six novels by their creator, E.F. Benson, a further two by Tom Holt and now a final three by Fraser-Sampson. Mostly Lucia comes out on top but not always.

The events presented in these novels take place in an idealised and sanitised version of England, the kind of England you expect to find in books by Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, P.G. Wodehouse and G.K. Chesterton. The characters are all larger than life at best veering at times towards out-and-out caricatures: the Vicar, for example, The Rev Kenneth Bartlett, is a kindly man always ready to jump to someone’s defence in the kind of Scottish accent they only speak in Brigadoon despite the fact he hails from Birmingham; the blusterous Major Benjy—Benjamin Mapp-Flint, Major Retd.—is exactly what you would expect from an old campaigner, a Miles Gloriosus whose life effectively stopped when he was demobbed and he now subsists on increasingly-fictional nostalgia, whiskies and soda and rounds of golf and then, of course, there’s Irene Coles, universally known as ‘Quaint’ Irene, a knickerbocker-clad lesbian, Germanophile and volatile socialist who paints naked women wrestlers, smokes a sailor’s pipe, and speaks her mind in a fruity bellow. I could go on but you get the idea. Any one of them could wander into a Jeeves and Wooster or a Father Brown and blend in parfectly (no, that wasn’t a typo).

Apparently there’s not in all England a town so blatantly picturesque as Tilling; it is the archetypal small English town. When Tillingites meet on the street the accepted and expected greeting is, “Any news?” but only news concerning Tilling or its inhabitants is considered real news; tittle-tattle is the only currency worth anything. For long and weary Mapp presided over this insular little world. That is until Lucia, who had been doyenne of the social scene of her home village of Riseholme, arrived and over the course of the novels gradually shifted the balance of power. By the time we get to Au Reservoir Lucia is now widely regarded as the richest woman in England (not sure if that includes royalty) and reigns supreme (if only in Tilling). But she’s getting on—even she recognises she’s getting on—and it’s time to start considering her legacy and not simply a museum celebrating all the famous mayors in Tilling’s proud history (which would, of course, feature her good self) and which she was considering in the last book. It would be so nice too, she muses, to leave this world as Dame Lucia. Mapp also realises that opportunities to bring Lucia to her knees are becoming thin on the ground and so decides it’s time to bring out the big guns. Somehow, however, in her enthusiasm she always manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

As with all these books what’s at stake is never anything on any real consequence. Mostly it’s the principle of the thing, e.g. can someone be banned from a bridge club before said club has been formed?

NoelCowardThe crux of this particular novel revolves around a singular question: Does Lucia in fact know Noël Coward? Well, of course, she knows him—everyone in the country knows him—but does she know him know him? Well, no, she doesn’t but it’s not for want of trying. She has written to him—and also his friend John Gielgud—frequently; she is one of the country’s great letter writers but alas not one of its great reply receivers. Certainly not from the likes of Messrs Coward and Gielgud or indeed the various sovereigns and prime ministers who she’s seen fit to enter into unilateral correspondences with. Mapp, knowing full well that Lucia’s oft commented on friendship with Noël Coward is nothing but a fabrication of her imagination, is never averse to introducing the topic into conversation in the hope Lucia might trip herself up. We have an example of one their typical exchanges in the opening chapter of the book:

          ‘Perhaps Mr Georgie will be seeing that nice Noël Coward, as he is such a good friend of yours?’ [Mapp] enquired innocently. ‘Goodness, now I come to think of it what a pity that you’ve never invited him to stay at Mallards. Why, I can just imagine the two of you sitting there at the piano playing Mozartino duets.’
           ‘Dear Noël,’ Lucia said dreamily. ‘Such a great talent and yet what a lovely man – so unaffected, you know.’
           ‘Such a shame, then, dear one, that you haven’t been able to entice him down for the weekend,’ Mapp pushed on, sensing victory.
           ‘Yes, isn’t it?’ Lucia cried. ‘It would indeed be wonderful, as you say, Elizabeth, but sadly the poor man is so busy he hardly knows what day of the week it is most of the time. Why, he told me as much in his last letter.’
          There came the hiss of a collective sharp intake of breath. The story of Noël Coward’s curt dismissal had of course been widely disseminated (Elizabeth had felt it no less than her duty, painful though it was to suggest that Lulu might not be entirely truthful).
           ‘His letter?’ Elizabeth echoed. ‘Was that the one in which he told you to leave him alone?’
           Lucia gave one of her little silvery laughs.
           ‘Elizabeth, dear,’ she said, elongating the name playfully. ‘You really must learn to read other people’s letters more thoroughly.’
          There was another group gasp.
           ‘Darling Noël is so temperamental that he has spats with all his friends on a regular basis. Why he wrote to me a few days later to apologise most charmingly and say that he was so taken up with writing his new play that he sometimes forgot to whom he was writing halfway through a letter. “But I just put it in the envelope, send it anyway and hope for the best,” he said. So like him, don’t you think?’
           ‘No idea, I’m sure, dear,’ Elizabeth said venomously. ‘After all, we don’t know him as well as you do, do we?’

How to force the issue? That is the problem and one Mapp has given a considerable amount of thought to. And then an opportunity arises: the upcoming fête at Tenterden. But before we get to that I should probably introduce Olga Bracely since QueenLuciashe’s to prove a key player in this little drama. Olga Bracely is in fact the stage and maiden name of Mrs Olga Shuttleworth a famous prima donna of the opera and an unusual friend of the Pillsons—of Lucia’s anyway—since, as Olga put it herself in Queen Lucia, she came out of an orphan school in Brixton but would much have preferred the gutter. Not quite common as muck but lacking some of the airs and graces one would expect considering the position she has risen to and although not quite the voice of reason she does occasionally put the posturings and pretences of her neighbours into perspective. Actually she’s more Georgie’s friend than Lucia’s although Lucia appreciates the fact that she’s a distraction that keeps her husband’s attentions away from her. In this respect Lucia’s relationship with Georgie is not dissimilar to Mapp’s with Major Benjy; the role of the husband in a marriage is probably one of the few things they do agree on:

The possibility of physical infidelity worried [Lucia] not at all, for she was well aware that Georgie was as blissfully free from such tedious urges as had been Pepino [her first husband]; had she not been very sure of that fact, she would never have consented to marry him in the first place. More worrisome was that periodically, as Georgie was drawn back into Olga’s orbit, he would begin to exhibit troubling signs of gratuitous enjoyment of life, such as dancing to gramophone records, partying the night away

It may be true that Lucia has not, despite her best efforts, managed to become a familiar of Noël Coward but Olga is and it just so happens that while dining out in London with Georgie who should they run into if not Noël Coward but also John Gielgud? And to top things off photographic evidence appears the following day’s papers, a rather satisfying one on the society page of the Daily Telegraph— ‘Miss Olga Bracely, fresh from her triumph at the Royal Opera House, relaxes with Mr Noël Coward, Mr John Gielgud and Mr George Pillson’—and a slightly more salacious one in the Daily Mirror:

Covering half the front page was a photograph of Olga and Georgie locked in what appeared to be a passionate embrace in the bar at Sheekey’s. As he over-balanced on his stool, Georgie must have put out a hand for support and he now saw that it had come to rest, quite inadvertently, on what could only be described as Olga’s thigh.

Whatever way one looked at it the evidence certainly pointed to the fact that at least one of the Pillsons was known to Messrs Coward and Gielgud making their continued non-appearances harder to explain or excuse than ever. Mapp decides the time is ripe and phones Lucia:

          ‘Isn’t it wonderful that you and Noel Coward are such close friends?’ Mapp enthused. ‘You see, there’s the teensiest favour I’d like to ask you.’
          Too late, Lucia smelt danger.
          ‘The Bartletts popped in a little while ago,’ Mapp purred, ‘asking for me to help with some fête thing over at Tenterden in three weeks’ time. Don’t know why really, after all everyone knows that sort of thing is much more in your line, dear worship. Why your tableaux vivants are the talk of East Sussex.’
           ‘I trust,’ Lucia broke in, ‘that you haven’t volunteered me for performing anything without consulting me first. Cattiva Elizabeth – you know how full my diary is. Anyway, I’m afraid it would be quite out of the question at such short notice. The preparations are extensive, dear, though of course I was forgetting – you’ve never actually featured in my tableaux, have you?’

Needless to say that’s not what’s being suggested:

          ‘And that’s when I had my little brainwave,’ Mapp said brightly. ‘I said to the Padre, “But why don’t you ask Lucia to invite her dear, dear friend Noël Coward down for the weekend and he can motor over to Tenterden with Cadman and open the fête?” And the Padre said, “What a bonny idea, Mistress Mapp,” and rang his friend the vicar at Tenterden, and he thought it was wonderful idea too. And then I positively clapped my little hands and thought how lovely it would all be.’
          In Lucia’s mind, the gearwheels were spinning wildly but somehow she could not quite slip the clutch and engage them. What to say? What to do?

Well, the solution should be simple. Ask Olga to intercede. They try that but Noël’s having none of it. Is Mapp finally going to get one over on Lucia? Probably not. But even if she does there’s always the new bridge club to do battle over and if that fails Mapp’s got her Joker ready to play in the unassuming, bank-managerly shape of Mr Chesworth (who’s not a bank manager or connected in any way to a bank or any similar financial institution).

I’ve enjoyed all three of Guy’s novels but I think this one is possibly the best and who doesn’t want to go out on a high? The plot is carefully constructed with every i dotted and t crossed. Guy does has a tendency to tell rather than show—the whole shenanigans of the bridge tournament are relayed in a conversation following the event and the same with the fête although we do get to see a bit of the action first-hand (the farce concerning the coaches)—but Shakespeare got away with stuff like that all the time. As with Shakespeare the real pleasure is to be found here mainly in the verbal parrying but also in our being privy to the agonising thoughts that go on behind the masks, none more so than poor henpecked Major Benjy:

          ‘So what’s the answer?’ she enquired, staring at him intently.
          The Major’s initial intention was to say, ‘Blowed if I know, old girl,’ and enquire what was for dinner, but he wisely refrained. He had an instinct that should he do so his wife might deploy a wide array of counter-attacking weaponry, ranging from accusations of gross insensitivity to foaming at the mouth and driving her knitting needles into his thigh. There was also of course the possibility that she might caustically enquire why it was, given that he’d been turning the matter over in his mind, that his prodigious intelligence had entirely failed to arrive at a helpful conclusion. Since his instinct on this occasion was to some extent sound, the recently strained marital relationship of the Mapp-Flints was happily not to be further tested that evening.
           ‘Why not just press ahead anyway?’ he ventured. ‘After all, we can’t get our deposit back, and we’ve got no other way of getting to Tenterden ourselves. Not unless you are planning to accept Lucia’s offer, and I can’t see you being inclined to do that.’
           ‘Oh, don’t be silly, Benjy,’ she said brusquely. ‘If we do that then everyone will simply say that we are copying Lucia.’
          The Major noted silently that whenever his wife’s plans went awry they underwent a subtle but significant transformation from being ‘her’ plans to ‘their’ plans.

To add a level of finality to the book Guy appends a coda—actually Uno Piccolo Codettino—a Deadly Distant Finale in which we find out what Fate has in store for everyone; John Irving did the same in The World According to Garp. He literally kills off everyone (even Shakespeare never thought to try that) but as he pointed out in an e-mail to me, “I comfort myself with the thought that there are still huge gaps in the chronology should any subsequent books want to extend the series (which I very much hope they will).”

Before the coda Guy still has to wrap up his storyline and I have to say I was a little surprised with how he chose to end things. Yes, there is a clear winner. But as with his ending to Lucia on Holiday Guy introduces some pathos that leaves us thinking of these inventions as real people if only for a few pages. A fitting end to his innings then. Wonder who’ll be out to bat next?


Guy-Fraser-SampsonGuy Fraser-Sampson originally qualified as a lawyer and became an equity partner in a City of London law firm at the age of 26, having already been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a member of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, and a member of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators. In 1986 he left the law and has since gained over twenty-five years’ experience in the investment arena, particularly in the fields of private equity funds, investment strategy and asset allocation.

Guy is well known as a provider of keynote addresses. He is also a prolific writer, supplying articles for every one of Europe's English language pension publications as well as numerous hedge fund and other investment titles, including his influential monthly column in Real Deals, which is read by the private equity community worldwide. He is also in regular demand for media interviews in various countries. In the UK, he has featured on both Sky and BBC television as well as Radio 4's Today programme. Links to some video interviews can be found here.

In addition to his Mapp and Lucia novels Guy also writes books on finance and investment and history. His first book on the Plantagenets (working title A Family at War) has been nominated for a Royal Society of Literature award. Cricket at the Crossroads: Colour, Class and Controversy 1967-1977 was published in September 2011. He also apparently writes detective fiction under a pseudonym which remains a closely guarded secret.

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