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April 06, 2009

The Campaign for Real Letters

Writing about web page http://postletters.org/

Philip Cowell is a young and talented writer who works for the Arvon Foundation. Philip attended a poetry andUse or Lose myth workshop I did for Arvon at Compton Verney last summer.

Philip is also leading up a campaign to promote letter writing.  I am a fairly keen e-phile, what with my podcasts, I-casts, I-U-Tunes recordings, blog, web-based poems and website.

BUT I do not think we need neglect the letter as a form or the book as a medium. Surely they all work together?

I support Philip's campaign strongly. Here's what his website (link above) states:

Join the campaign to promote letter writing! We promote letter writing as a pleasure that improves you, the community and the whole world. We use Web 2.0 technology to encourage pre-Web activity.

Post Letters is a UK-based, worldwide movement to encourage, promote and take delight in the activity of writing letters and sending post. Both a call to action and a description of our time, Post Letters needs your help.

We bring people together to think about Post in the Twenty First Century, organise letter readings and writings, present you with new ideas for your post, commission artists and writers to produce new mail art, produce Post Events and much more besides.

You can get involved too! Email your name and address to Philip at post.more.letters @ gmail.com and you will receive a free piece of post made by Post Letter maker-volunteers to challenge and delight you.

So, I got involved (you should too). To support the campaign for real letters, I wrote Philip a letter as follows:

Dear Philip,

Once, on a long walk in the Gloucestershire countryside near his home, my early mentor, the poet Charles Tomlinson, once said to me that every poem - at its best - is a love poem. How about that? I was naturally unsettled by this statement, since the poems I was writing then were rather dark and singular, and so I asked him to expand.

Charles argued that poetry is an extreme act of attention (sensual, linguistic, intellectual, etc.) on the part of both the writer and reader - in the same way that love demands attention to make love live and last. Therefore, every poem is a love poem. ‘If the poem is any good, you mean?’ I asked. ‘Of course’, said Charles, ‘but that would go for love also’.

I took this idea away with me and thought about it for twenty years. I guess part of the argument here is that when we stop paying attention to the world we do ourselves great harm. It is like a slow suicide of thought with the senses. And then you asked me what I thought of letters…

Here’s my answer or answers. Every letter, at its very best, is a love letter pace Tomlinson. To paraphrase Ben Jonson, language most shows a person, and a letter in which language and attention possess linked force creates a document that asks the reader or recipient to raise their own level of being, to allow themselves (if you like) to be ‘loved’. It also allows the writer of the letter to be ‘shown’ more clearly.

Can one replicate this within a text or e-mail? I suppose one could, but it is not the culture of a text or e-mail to be attentively crafted in this way. This is not to say that texts or e-mails are lesser forms of communication. I would argue that text allows a great deal of room for play-in-language. It’s a ‘sandpit’ form. E-mails are so closely associated with the world of work, for the rapid transmission of information, that writing one with linguistic passion and attention might strike the recipient as a little creepy.

I have recently been involved with creating new forms of ecological media for poetry in natural spaces. It’s been called ‘slow poetry’, for the same reasons of ‘slow food’ and the entire ‘slow’ movement. It’s about local sourcing, paying close attention, taking your time and enjoying yourself. I think the ‘slow’ movement should adopt your campaign for letter writing.

Letters are most definitely a ‘slow’ art form, not just in how they are written, but how they are sent (all those stamps, envelopes and post office queues); how they are transported (those lit trains at night); how they are delivered (rise, you postal workers at dawn); and how they are read (preferably over a slow breakfast and, oh, the slow pleasure of slicing open an envelope with your name written in ink – in ink! – upon it). These are slow pleasures.

Now I think about this I have come to the opinion that the political wing of your movement for the writing of letters ought to adopt extreme action and guerilla tactics. For example, I think you should take a bold step to re-introduce the writing of verse letters, e.g.

Dear Philip,

writing this prose will be

time spent off from poetry.

I agree with you

that there should be

a League for Letters.

The age makes free

with language, sure,

but language evolves

for language is rich.

It’s not what we say

but the means by which.

Which, of course, is neither entirely true nor untrue, and a bit Poohish. But it was fun while it lasted, and more fun than an e-mail. Oh, and then the ‘salutations’ side to the close of a letter that must never be undervalued….

And with that, let me bid you goodbye, wishing you, Arvon, and the League for Letters all my warmest wishes,

Yours truly, & etc.,

David Morley.


February 27, 2009

Maureen Freely's Guardian Blog on the Warwick Prize for Writing

The complex problems of judging the Warwick prize

Picking a winner for the inaugural Warwick prize for writing has been exhilarating, but not a little tricky

TS Eliot sets out one of his plays in the form of a diagram

Complex maths ... TS Eliot sets out one of his plays in the form of a diagram. Photograph: Bettmann/CORBIS

We had a longlista shortlist, and five judges to decide the winner. But these were just about the only concessions to convention; from the outset, the Warwick prize for writing wanted to be different from other literary prizes. Instead of seeking out a corporate sponsor, it drew the prize money (a sizeable purse – £50,000) from its own funds. Instead of relying on selectors or setting quotas for publishers, it called upon suggestions from staff members – anyone working at Warwick, no matter what their position, could nominate a book. The original pool was read and whittled down by filter groups, again drawn from the Warwick community.

Books could belong to any category – fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry, to name a few – so long as they had been published in English, on paper or on the internet, within a two-year period. They had to address a general audience, speaking in some way to the theme of complexity. This daring deployment of a four-syllable word caused many foreheads to furrow. What did we take it to mean?

Well, the short answer is that we took it to mean something else for each new book we read, and during each new conversation we had about a book as it travelled from longlist to shortlist and beyond. Our brief was to track what David Morley, the architect of the prize, calls the "moving edge" of contemporary writing. Although he and I have worked together for more than 12 years now, I'm not sure I ever knew what he meant. So I wrote to ask him. Just a moment ago, I got his answer:

"If we accept that writing makes you think, and that the formation of knowledge depends partly on the complex and often playful process of writing, then what role does the process of writing perform on that very edge of 'not knowing' and 'knowing': a place of creativity, energy and adventure?"

Hmm. That's a pretty sharp edge he's drawn there. I'm not quite sure how to respond. What I can say, though, is that when I think back on the 20 books I read for this year's prize, I believe I've had a glimpse of what one community of readers was reading and, even more importantly, the ideas they were puzzling over as they struggled to make sense of the world. This being a university community, it is perhaps not surprising that so many of the books draw upon fields of knowledge that are properly understood only by small groups of scholars or experts. What did surprise me was to read so many books that managed to break through that barrier, giving complexity a shape and a narrative, and never succumbing to oversimplification.

Quite a few of the best books were very long. They were not just long: they demanded slow and careful reading. There were times – as with Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise – when I felt as if I was crawling over a century of music with a laser, seeing how each note connected to the next. While reading Mad, Bad, and Sad, Lisa Appignanesi's brilliant (and yes, complex) history of mind doctors and their female patients, I was continually reminded of the many polemics that preceded it, and endlessly appreciative of her humane understanding of mental illness, its sufferers, and those who have (with wildly mixed results) sought to help them.

When we were discussing Montano's Malady by Enrique Vila-Matas, whose silver-tongued narrator suffers from "literature sickness", seeing allusions, resonances and subversions everywhere, I had to admit that I saw myself. When we turned to Stuart A Kauffman's The Reinvention of the Sacred, which, while accepting the laws of physics, refutes reductionism and argues for a new theory of the universe that explains emergence, I was glad that one of our number was a scientist. When we set Francisco Goldman's The Art of Political Murder alongside Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, it seemed as if both were inspired attempts to illuminate the long, dark history of backroom deals that have brought us to the sorry state we're in today. The former focuses on a political assassination in Guatemala and its aftermath. The latter spans 50 years and covers the globe. How interesting, then, to see how many of the bad guys in these books were trained at the same schools.

If we had been confined to the usual categories, we would have been measuring the books up to some definition of a form. What qualities are most important in a novel? How does Collection X raise the poetry stakes? What does literary non-fiction look like? When does a biography read more like fiction? As a longtime sufferer of literature sickness, I have to admit that these questions consume me, too. But what a refreshing change it made to read 20 books for their ideas, and to track the ways in which the very act of writing changed them.


February 16, 2009

A Continuing Debate: "Poetry is Beautiful, But Science is What Matters

Part of the debate "Poetry is beautiful, but science is what matters"

Opposer: Dr Peter McDonald

Many scientists are productively interested in consciousness, and poets too have found the subject compelling. In poetry, consciousness can't be prised apart from language. Here is Wordsworth:

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.


Not too deep for words, notice, and not too deep for precisely these words. Beautiful? Yes, but to Professor Atkins merely so, for 'the human heart' is to him simply a 'code for consciousness'. Easily so, too, for to him 'poetry is verbally beautiful regardless of its intent'.

These lines must therefore be 'beautiful' too:

But oh! it turn'd poor Strephon's Bowels,
When he beheld and smelt the Towels,
Begumm'd, bematter'd, and beslim'd
With Dirt, and Sweat, and Ear-Wax grim'd.


That's Swift, in his way as interested as Wordsworth in 'the human heart'. The lines are written with a certain intent – but for Professor Atkins that doesn't matter: for him they are beautiful whatever their intent, because they are poetry: and poetry, which he is so careful not to 'denigrate' (does he mean that he could, if he cared to?) doesn’t really matter. Not, anyhow, in comparison to what he calls 'science'.

Yet how poetic this 'science' sounds: it gives 'free flight' to 'unfettered brains', it is 'the fruit of the tree of human endeavour', and it comes through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment as a 'child' and an 'apotheosis'. Heady stuff. But talk of unfettered grey matter is fraught with dangers and comic pitfalls, none of them science's fault.

Such flights of fancy expose the places where language trips us up. Just as science has revealed more about the universe and the conditions of our existence, poetry has repeatedly cleansed the language, and works continually against its contamination. Language matters because we matter – to ourselves, and to each other. In this, our standards are humanly conceived, and have a way of disregarding declarations of their own insignificance. Coleridge called words – including 'the best words' – 'LIVING POWERS, by which the things of most importance to mankind are actuated, combined, and humanized.'

Poetry teaches us to be careful about language, and careful with it. I'll end with Swift again, on heady stuff:

Nor be the Handkerchiefs forgot
All varnish'd o'er with Snuff and Snot.


Anyone certain that poetry is only good for putting a shine on things should reflect on what these lines do to the idea of beautiful matter.


February 12, 2009

Poetry is beautiful, but science is what matters

Writing about web page http://www.ox.ac.uk/oxford_debates/hilary_2009_poetry_and_science/mod_intro.html

Oxfordbryant

A fascinating Oxford debate is unfolding online at the website above on the subject 'Poetry is beautiful, but science is what matters'. This is a subject close to my heart (and head, as in 'gun to the head'). The moderator, Professor Sally Shuttleworth, opened with the following:

This debate takes place fifty years after C. P. Snow's famous lecture in 1959 on 'The Two Cultures', and the fierce quarrel with the literary critic F. R. Leavis which then ensued. The clash between Snow and Leavis was itself, however, a reprise of the battle in the nineteenth century between T. H. Huxley, that great defender of Darwin, and the poet, Matthew Arnold (to whom we owe the phrase the 'dreaming spires' of Oxford). History keeps repeating itself, and although the terms of the debate shift, there remains an underlying question: how should we educate our young? It is probable that this question is intensified in England because of an education system which until recently forced a stark choice between 'arts' and 'science' at the tender age of 16, thus reinforcing institutionally the notion that there are two separate, and even opposing, cultures or bodies of knowledge.

Much has changed since the 1950s. Scholars now highlight the creativity and imaginative force of science, but also the ways in which it can intersect with, and draw upon, contemporary culture.   Artists and poets are now routinely placed in science departments, working alongside scientists to capture in poetic or artistic form the processes of science. The new Biochemistry building at Oxford is a triumphant expression of this union, with the art of biochemistry captured in the fabric of the building. As we celebrate Darwin's achievements this year, we do well to reflect that the success of the Origin owed much to the rhetoric of its author. Peter Atkins' vision of the grandeur of science draws on the poetry of Darwin's conclusion: 'There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.'

Professor Peter Atkins is proposer for the debate while the excellent Peter McDonald is the opposer.

Proposer. Opposer, Proposer. Opposer. Let’s call the whole thing on.

McDonald argues - elegantly - that:

Science can explain definitively what it sets out to explain; but there is a danger in taking this for the whole picture, and relegating everything else to the realm of the inessential – so that poetry is very nice, perhaps, but not what matters.  Such confidence comes from too much contact with progress. Although the sciences don't really progress in straight lines – ways forward can become dead-ends, and unlikely tangents can turn out to be main routes into new knowledge – in the relatively few years since scientists have called themselves scientists, they have agreed that progress in their fields of knowledge depends on what can be proven: you have to establish something before using it to establish something else. 

Poetry isn't like this. For a start, poetry doesn't progress. What a poem proves is never conclusive, and everything a good poem has to offer isn't revealed at once. The composition of a poem is a leap in the dark, an act of complete imaginative risk. Not experiment, risk: and what is at risk is the language itself, which unsuccessful or dishonest writing debases, and good writing preserves and invigorates. A healthy language, capable of precision and complexity in answering to human expression and experience, and able to bear the weight of its past while bringing responsiveness and self-correcting clarity to bear on the future, matters intensely to any society. 

This should prove a timely and interesting set of statements.


February 02, 2009

Thaw's Metaphor

Parliament today thanks Flickr


January 27, 2009

Sebastian Barry

Good. As predicted.

Sebastian Barry has won the Costa Book of the Year Award for the love story The Secret Scripture.

BBC comments:

Barry accepted his £25,000 award at a ceremony in central London, adding it was a "very wonderful night".

Chairman of the judges Matthew Parris said the decision was an "extraordinarily close finish" with poet Adam Foulds' The Broken Word.

Irish-born Barry missed out on the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in October last year.

Parris said Barry won the award, formerly known as the Whitbread prize, despite the judges being unhappy with the ending.

"The feeling of many of the judges with The Secret Scripture was that there was a lot wrong with it and it was flawed in many ways," he said.

"Almost nobody liked the ending (and) for some that was fatal to their support for the book."

The Secret Scripture centres on elderly woman Roseanne McNulty, who faces an uncertain future as the hospital where she has spent the best part of her adult life prepares for closure.

COSTA BOOK FINALISTS
Sebastian Barry The Secret Scripture (Novel)
Diana Athill Somewhere Towards the End (Biography)
Sadie Jones The Outcast (First novel)
Adam Foulds The Broken Word (Poetry)
Michelle Magorian Just Henry (Children's book)

Over the weeks leading up to the upheaval, she often talks to her psychiatrist Dr Grene.

Parris said: "Most people thought that Dr Grene's voice, the psychiatrist's voice, didn't work nearly as well as Roseanne's.

"But most people thought that in Roseanne a narrator had been created of such a transcendence that that redeemed all the other structural weaknesses in the book."

The judging panel included comedian Alexander Armstrong, journalist Michael Buerk and actresses Rosamund Pike and Pauline McLynn.

Parris said The Broken Word, a work of poetry about the Mau Mau uprisings in Kenya, "nearly pipped The Secret Scripture to the post".

But he added that the final decision was "absolutely not" a compromise.

Diana Athill
Athill has seen a surge in sales of her memoir Somewhere Towards the End

He said of the nine judges, five were for The Secret Scripture and four for The Broken Word and one of the five for The Secret Scripture wavered: "So it really was a knife edge right up tot he end."

Summing up the work, Parris said: "Sebastian Barry has created a voice that transcends any of the problems there might be with this novel."

He described the character of Roseanne as "one of the great narrative voices in contemporary fiction".

Individual awards

Barry also beat 91-year-old Diana Athill, first-timer Sadie Jones, and children's author Michelle Magorian to the prestigious prize.

The writers won individual categories earlier this month, and were awarded their £5,000 prizes during Tuesday's ceremony.

Athill, who won the biography prize for her memoir Somewhere Towards the End, is the oldest category-winner in the history of the awards.

Her book looks back on her life and the stories, events and relationships that have shaped it, and saw strong sales in the run-up to the announcement.

Jones was second-favourite at the bookmakers to win the overall award with her debut novel The Outcast.

Magorian, the author of the hugely successful Goodnight Mr Tom, won the children's book award for Just Henry.

The winner was announced at an awards ceremony at The Intercontinental Hotel, in London's Park Lane.

Originally established in 1971 by Whitbread, Costa took over the sponsorship of the prize in 2006.


January 24, 2009

The Guardian on the Warwick Prize Shortlist

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/cross_fac/prizeforwriting/

The Warwick prize for writing: complex shortlist revealed

Alison Flood writes

If it's complexity you're after in a book then hie thee to the shortlist for the inaugural Warwick prize for writing, which has taken complexity as its theme and selected six widely varying books on that basis.

"Complexity can be felt as a stone in the shoe of good writing, yet complexity might be part of the writer's long and sometimes stony journey to simplicity," said professor David Morley, director of the £50,000 prize. "Art conceals art... If we accept that writing makes you think, and that the formation of knowledge depends partly on the complex and often playful process of writing, then what role does the process of writing play on that moving edge of knowledge?"

And on that basis judges, chaired by the master of weird fiction China Miéville, and including academic and translator Maureen Freely, journalist Maya Jaggi and Warwick University mathematician professor Ian Stewart, have selected the shortlist, revealed today.

Heavy on non-fiction, the line-up includes a solitary novel, Enrique Vila-Matas's Montano's Malady, about an obsessive and overstimulated writer who finds fiction and reality starting to merge. But the non-fiction selected by judges is hugely different, from Lisa Appignanesi's study of the relationship between women and mental illness Mad, Bad and Sad to Naomi Klein's look at the rise of what she has dubbed "disaster capitalism", The Shock Doctrine. The shortlist is completed by novelist Francisco Goldman's first foray into non-fiction, a history of the investigation into the murder of Guatemalan bishop Juan Gerardi, The Art of Political Murder, Stuart A Kauffman's fresh look at science, reason and religion Reinventing the Sacred, and Alex Ross's history of 20th-century music The Rest is Noise - which also won the Guardian's first book award.

"What is complexity? It can be anything," said Freely. "Complexity was chosen [as the theme] because it could mean many many different things, and could be interpreted in many many different ways."

She said the books which ended up on the shortlist from the longlist of 20 were the ones "in which the ideas in the books got us talking, got us arguing"; Miéville said that every book on the shortlist was "doing something Not The Edge We Were Thinking Of....new, doing something complex, and doing them brilliantly".

Freely, who described herself as a "fiction person first and foremost", felt that future themes for the biennial prize would be more conducive to fiction. "We were reading these books at a time when the world is falling apart, and a lot of these books spoke to these questions - the non-fiction books - in arresting ways, and somehow we agreed amongst the judges about the non-fiction, and agreement means a shortlisting."

The winner - who Morley said would be "situated on that very edge of 'not knowing' and knowing: a place of creativity, energy and adventure" - will be announced on 24 February.


January 23, 2009

£50000 Warwick Prize for Writing announces inaugural shortlist

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/cross_fac/prizeforwriting/

The Warwick Prize for Writing today announced its first ever shortlist last night in London. The unique prize, open to all genres and nationalities, reveals an eclectic shortlist of six international titles.

Prize logo

Exciting times! This year’s prize theme of ‘complexity’ is interpreted differently by all six shortlisted writers, all experts in their diverse fields. Themes range from global political corruption, female psychology, 20th century music, scientific theories on religion to a Spanish literary fiction puzzle.

The six shortlisted titles chosen from a longlist of 20 are:

Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800

Lisa Appignanesi

Virago

Non-Fiction

The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed Bishop Gerardi?

Francisco Goldman

Atlantic Books

Non-Fiction

Reinventing the Sacred

Stuart A Kauffman

Perseus - Basic Books

Non-Fiction

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism

Naomi Klein

Penguin

Non-Fiction

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century

Alex Ross

4th Estate,

Harper Collins

Non-Fiction

Montano's Malady

Enrique Vila-Matas (translator: Jonathan Dunne)

New Directions

Fiction

The judging panel includes journalist Maya Jaggi; novelist, translator and academic Maureen Freely; Britain’s first book blogger Stephen Mitchelmore and University of Warwick mathematician Professor Ian Stewart.

The winner will be announced on 24 February 2009 at the University of Warwick.

To find out more visit www.warwick.ac.uk/go/prizeforwriting

The 2009 Warwick Prize for Writing Shortlist:

  • Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 by Lisa Appignanesi (Virago)

About the Book

Lisa Appignanesi’s brilliantly researched study of the relationship between women, mental illness and the mind doctors - one of the few to look at the full range of the ‘psy’ professions - reveals why this subject is so complex and fascinating.  Using riveting documented cases - from the depression suffered by Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath to the mental anguish and addictions of iconic beauties, Zelda Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe, Appignanesi explores how the treatment of women has contributed hugely to the growth of understanding in the profession.

About the Author

Lisa Appignanesi is a novelist, writer and broadcaster. She is President of English PEN, the founding centre of the world association of writers.

Previous writing includes the novel The Memory Man (Arcadia), the psychological thrillers Paris Requiem, Sanctuary, The Dead of Winter (Bantam) as well as The Things we do for Love, A Good Women, Dreams of Innocence and Memory and Desire (Harper Collins).

Her non-fiction includes the much praised family memoir, Losing the Dead (Chatto/Vintage). She has also written a life of Simone de Beauvoir, (Haus 2005) and is co-author of the classic study, Freud’s Women with John Forrester (3rd edition, Phoenix, 2005). A former university lecturer and Deputy Director of London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, she co-edited The Rushdie File and initiated and edited the important Documents series.

  • The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed Bishop Gerardi? by Francisco Goldman (Atlantic Books)

About the Book

The Art of Political Murder is the first non-fiction book from acclaimed novelist Francisco Goldman and is the story of the seven-year investigation into the murder of a Guatemalan Bishop.

Bishop Juan Gerardi, Guatemala’s leading human rights activist, was bludgeoned to death in the garage of his parish house on the evening of Sunday 26 April 1998. This took place just two days after the presentation of a groundbreaking church-sponsored report implicating the military in the murders and disappearances of some two hundred thousand civilians. Known in Guatemala as “The Crime of the Century,” the case confounded observers and generated extraordinary controversy. For seven years, Francisco Goldman has closely followed the efforts to uncover the truth; the killing or forced exile of multiple witnesses, judges, and prosecutors; the brave struggle of the church’s legal team; and the efforts of one courageous prosecutor to solve the case and bring the killers to justice.

About the Author

Francisco Goldman’s first novel, The Long Night of White Chickens, won the Sue Kaufman Prize for first fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The Ordinary Seaman, his second novel, was a finalist for the International IMPAC-Dublin Literary Award. Both novels were finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Goldman’s novel The Divine Husband was published by Atlantic Books in 2006. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, New York Times Magazine, and New York Review of Books. The Art of Political Murder (Atlantic 2008) is his latest book and won the CWA Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction 2008.

  • Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason and Religion by Stuart A. Kauffman (Perseus – Basic Books)

About the Book

Kauffman shows why reductionism is an inadequate theory to explain the infinite possibilities of the evolution of the biosphere, human economic life, and human history. Instead, he offers a radical new worldview: the natural universe contains a ceaseless creativity that simply can’t be predicted. It is this creativity in the cosmos – not a supernatural “Creator God” – that should be viewed as divine.

With examples ranging from DNA and cell differentiation to Darwinian preadaptation, consciousness, and human technological advances, he argues that not everything that happens in the universe is governed by natural laws.

According to Kauffman, we do not lack sufficient knowledge or wisdom to predict the future evolution of the biosphere, economy, or human culture. Rather, it is that these things are inherently beyond prediction.

About the Author

Stuart A. Kauffman is well-known for his research in theoretical biology and as a pioneer in the field of complexity theory. He is the founding director of the Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics, and a professor at the University of Calgary. During the 1990s he rose to prominence through his key role at the Santa Fe Institute, where he is currently External Professor. His previous books include The Origins of Order, Investigations, and At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity. He lives in Calgary, Canada.

  • The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein (Penguin)

About the Book

Based on breakthrough historical research and four years of on-the-ground reporting, Naomi Klein explores the theory that our world is increasingly in thrall to a little understood ideology that is conquering the globe by systematically exploiting moments of disaster and trauma. This is the shock doctrine.

Using detailed case studies from around the world, Klein explores how the shock doctrine uses moments of collective crisis – 9/11, the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina or the Falklands war for example – to usher in radical social and economic change beneficial to Wild West corporations when people are traumatised: effectively, when they are in a state of shock. Klein coins this phenomenon disaster capitalism.

About the Author

Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, author and filmmaker. Her first book, the international bestseller No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, was translated into 28 languages and called “a movement bible” by The New York Times. She writes an internationally syndicated column for The Nation and The Guardian and reported from Iraq for Harper’s magazine. In 2004, she released The Take, a feature documentary about Argentina’s occupied factories, co-produced with director Avi Lewis. She is a former Miliband Fellow at the London School of Economics and holds an honorary Doctor of Civil Laws from the University of King’s College, Nova Scotia.

  • The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross (4th Estate, Harper Collins)

About the Book

In The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross, music critic to the New Yorker, gives us a riveting tour of the wild landscape of twentieth-century classical music with portraits of individuals, cultures and nations that reveal the predicament of the individual composer in a century of noise.

In the crashing finale, Ross combines his themes of musical politics, political music and the predicament of the solitary voice with an examination of progressive pop artists such as The Velvet Underground and Brian Eno, demonstrating how classical and modern traditions have been re-invented in the digital era, and showing what the future holds for music and its relationship to a chaotic world.

About the Author

Alex Ross has been the music critic of The New Yorker magazine since 1996. His work has also appeared in The New Republic, Slate, and the London Review of Books. He has been featured in Best American Essays, Da Capo Best Music Writing, and Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader. He has received two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards for music criticism and a Holtzbrinck fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin.

  • Montano's Malady by Enrique Vila-Matas, translator Jonathan Dunne (New Directions)

About the Book

A traveling obsessive writer, coming to terms with a life of loss and pain, overstimulates himself on his favourite writers to the point that fiction and reality become indistinguishable.

In Enrique Vila-Matas prize-winning novel, Montano’s Malady, we encounter a cornucopia of writing styles by Jose, a writer obsessively searching for the ‘golden mean’ between the fictive and the actual. Utilizing the novel, the diary, the memoir, and philosophical musings juxtaposed within and throughout the voices of Cervantes, Sterne, Kafka, Walser, Bolano, and Sebald to create an orchestrated cacophony of literature, Jose guides the reader as they journey to European cities and South American ports.

About the Author

Enrique Vila-Matas was born in Barcelona in 1948. He studied law and journalism, and in 1968 became a columnist for the magazine Film Framesr. In 1971, he performed military service in Melilla, where in the back of a military grocer's shop he wrote his first book, Women in the Mirror Contemplating the Landscape.

He is a Knight of the Legion of Honor from France and has been awarded many literary prizes including the prize city of Barcelona and the Romulo Gallegos (2001), the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger and Fernando Aguirre-Libralire (2002) and the prize of Critics Circle Chile (2003). In September 2007 he won the literary prize Elsa Morante Scrittori del Mondo, which rewards "to an important foreign author."

Enrique Vila-Matas’ work has been translated so far into 29 languages.

About the Translator

Jonathan Dunne has translated Bartleby & Co. and Montano’s Malady, by Enrique Vila-Matas, as well as a number of other books from Spanish, Catalan, Galician, and Bulgarian. His work has been nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Weidenfeld Translation Prize.

                                                                                              



July 18, 2008

Strid and Sessile 1

Strid Wood 1I am striding through a deciduous artistic woodland of choices just now. I have four different public poetry commissions, three of which are not page-bound but completely open air - which readers of this blog will know I prefer.

One of these open air poetry commissions is coming to the fore over the next six weeks. It is set in a sessile oak woodland called Strid Wood. There are many other species of trees too, each of which will no doubt play some role in creating the wood-speech of these new poems.

The woodland is set in an historically interesting site, near Bolton Abbey. The River Wharfe courses through the woods reaching a narrow gorge called The Strid. On the far side of the woodland is a valley skittered across by a number of famous waterfalls (Roger Deakin has of course swum in them all). The valley is called The Valley of Desolation. Already I'm out of my seat and into my fell boots!

The excellent Chrysalis Arts, based in North Yorkshire, approached me a few weeks back to look at the site and see what I could come up with over the summer. I have lots of material, but one of the key challenges is 'setting' the poems in place within this woodland in such a way that we accord with Gaia principles - no carbon footprint, no disturbance of habitat. This means that I am having to look at the way I write and place these poems carefully. I cannot afford the Andy Goldsworthy approach of taking natural materials and reinventing them as new visuals. I can't really touch a thing! I am going to use my blog over the next few days and weeks to try ideas out, and also gain your views on how to write into the natural world without affecting it in any way - in fact to create art that increases species richness.

One of my tricks from last year was the creation of Bard Boxes - take a bird box; write a poem that fitsBard Box 1 the species that uses the box; place poem on the box in a subversive way; place the bird box and thus increase species diversity for that species. The fledglings emerge from within the poem as it were.

This one to the left is by one of my students and so is the example below. I have a patent pending on this idea so hands off, eco-capitalists!

However, this is the first idea for setting the poems in Strid Wood. We write the poems on to bird boxes.

We could have two types: the Bard Boxes with more traditional fonts and images from the natural world and/or another patented idea - the Bad Boxes.

Bad Boxes are the urban version of the Bard Boxes. They are birdboxes streaked with graffiti, poem-graffiti written by/for the species.

What, after all, are birds really 'saying' to each other through 'song'? They are saying 'I'm king (usually it's the males) of this patch and you'd better watch your step (or hop), sunshine, or I'll rip your guts out you m*****f****'.

Male robins get so uptight with other males that they kill each other on occasion. Male robins have been given to self-slaughter, murdering the male in the car mirror, not realising they are attacking their own image. Life in the woods is life on the street.

So I imagine graffitied bird boxes with graffiti-poems on them, poems that really describe what is going between those merry songsters, and these might be an imaginative, and even more honest, interpretation and intervention of the natural world and natural selection.

Yet, even Bad Boxes will increase species richness while 'advertising' the poems.

The problem is that they may be placed so high up that they are scarcely visible to visitors to Strid Wood. In that case, the text must be large enough to be viewed without needing binoculars, and the poems must be short and concise and super-resonant.

Bard Box 2


July 10, 2008

The Warwick Prize for Writing

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/cross_fac/prizeforwriting/

Warwick Prize Logo

How does writing evolve? Where is its moving edge? Is all writing – at its very best – a type of creative writing?

To explore these questions – and to identify excellence and innovation in new writing - the University is launching The Warwick Prize for Writing. This prize itself will help define where writing might be going; what new shapes and forms it may take; and even through what media it might be conducted - including electronic forms as well as the traditional form of a book. The value of the prize is a measure of the seriousness of our endeavour: £50,000.

This will be a very distinctive and high-profile project. The prize is unveiled to the world todayand the winner announced in February 2009. It is an international cross-disciplinary award which will be given biennially for an excellent and substantial piece of writing in the English language, in any genre or form, on a theme which will change with every award. The theme of The Warwick Prize for Writing in 2009 is Complexity.

I am tremendously excited about the Warwick Prize for Writing. It will underline the University’s position at the forefront of academic excellence. It also brilliantly reflects Warwick’s thematic approach to learning and reputation for literary and creative excellence. In keeping with the remit of the university, the prize aims to encourage a diverse and international range of entries. Submissions may be translations of a work first published in another language.

Who makes the nominations for this prize? As the Romani saying goes, ‘We are all one – all who are with us are ourselves’. To that end, we are writing to all members of University Staff and inviting them to make a nomination. We want everybody to be involved – nursery staff, cleaners, gardeners, professors and porters. Honorary professors and honorary graduates will also be asked to make nominations.

The winning submission will represent an intellectual, scientific and/or imaginative advance and be written with an energy and clarity that makes it accessible and attractive to a wide audience. In addition to the £50,000 monetary prize, the winning author will be awarded the opportunity to take up a short placement at the University, possibly within The Institute of Advanced Study or The Warwick Writing Programme, or a department of the writer’s choosing.

Let us look briefly at this year’s theme: Complexity. A particularly talismanic statement was once made by Christopher Zeeman, the founder of Warwick’s Mathematics Department and Mathematics Research Centre in 1964: ‘Technical skill is mastery of complexity, while creativity is mastery of simplicity’. Nominators for The Warwick Prize for Writing take note! The theatre writer Kenneth Tynan joked, ‘The sheer complexity of writing a play always had dazzled me. In an effort to understand it, I became a critic’. Complexity can be felt as a stone in the shoe of good writing, yet complexity might be part of the writer’s long and sometimes stony journey to simplicity. As the physician and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes said, ‘I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity’. The virtues of a complex book of poems or fiction might be in the apparent simplicity of its language, and in the subliminal patterning and codes that arc across such work. Art conceals art. The virtue of an accessible and exciting book of creative non-fiction about Fermat’s last theorem might reside in its style. In this latter case, art releases and refreshes knowledge: the art of style translates complex ideas with energy, simplicity and clarity. Yet these are hard-won qualities in writing. In fact they are highly complex processes.

To return to those questions that opened this blog. These are questions I ask myself all the time as a poet and as professor of creative writing at Warwick. When I was a young research scientist I found myself facing the same issues because I often reached a zone where the current knowledge simply tapered to nothing. When scientists reach this point, this moving edge of knowledge, they surf forwards by a combination of previous knowledge, guesswork, and intuition. They become poets; they write – and they imagine - themselves into presence. They create possibility. I always regarded science at this level as a form of creative writing. The physicist Niels Bohr observed, ‘When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images’. The best writing creates possibility.

My point is that, as with a poem or a paradigm, knowledge formation has a moving edge, a place where ‘not knowing’ is almost as important as knowing. If we accept that writing makes you think, and that the formation of knowledge depends partly on the complex and often playful process of writing, then what role does the process of writing play on that moving edge of knowledge? I imagine that the winners of The Warwick Prize for Writing will be situated on that very edge of ‘not knowing’ and knowing: a place of creativity, energy and adventure.

This has been a very exciting (and complex!) project to manage, and I wish to thank all those people who have kindly given their time to help make the project fall into place, and to the Vice-Chancellor for having the vision to make it happen.

All current Warwick staff, honorary graduates and honorary professors are eligible to contribute so we hope that you will support the prize by making a nomination by Friday 1 August 2008. You can only make one nomination and this will remain confidential.

Further details of the prize are available on the website where you will also find the submission form: www.warwick.ac.uk/go/prizeforwriting. If you are unable to access the internet you can also ring 02476 1 50868 to register your nomination. Nominations must be accompanied by a non-returnable copy of the entry or by an adequate website address.

About the Prize

The University Strategy 2015 contains the goal to “establish a distinctive Warwick Prize for Writing that will involve global competition”.

It is an international cross-disciplinary award which will be given biennially for an excellent and substantial piece of writing in the English language, in any genre or form

The theme of The Warwick Prize for Writing in 2009 is Complexity.

All current Warwick staff, Warwick Honorary Graduates and Honorary Professors are eligible to make nominations. Current Warwick staff and Honorary Professors are ineligible to be nominated for the Prize. Self nominations are ineligible.

The winner will be announced in February 2009.

The winner will receive £50,000 plus the opportunity to take up a short placement at Warwick University.

Nominations must be received by 1 August 2008.

More information is available on the website at www.warwick.ac.uk/go/prizeforwriting


July 09, 2008

The Land Where The OuLiPo Live

The OuLiPo At Play

Sometimes, the challenge to creative writing is not to make something final or assessable, but to make something potential, a kind of audition with language, or even a playful confection of words and letters—art for art’s sake; play for play’s sake. On the continent of writing, no citizens have as much fun as in the country where the OuLiPo live.

100,000,000,000,000 Poems consists of a sequence of ten 14-line sonnets by the French writer and former Surrealist Raymond Queneau (Editions Gallimard, 1961). Each sonnet has an identical rhyme scheme. In the original edition, the sonnets are printed on the recto side of each page, and the lines cut into fourteen strips. If a reader lifts one strip of line on any of the pages, except the last, a completely new sonnet is revealed. If they lift two strips, then another, and so on in all possible permutations until one reaches 1014 sonnet combinations, or one hundred million million sonnets, thus the title. The author calculated that someone reading the book 24 hours a day would require 190, 258, 751 years to complete it. They would also need to keep a careful note of the combinations along the way, and obviously be enthusiastic about the book. Queneau’s poem gave birth to an idea.

As war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means, so The OuLiPo is the continuation by other means of literature. Writers, mathematicians and academics founded the OuLiPo or Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature) in 1960. Subsequent membership is by election, but that need not stop you from trying out their techniques, or inventing some of your own.

Their purpose was to find out how abstract restrictions combine with imaginative writing. They advocated the use of severe, self-imposed limitations during the act of creation. As Queneau put it, they are as ‘rats who construct the labyrinth from which they propose to escape’. Two of its most famous members are Italo Calvino and Georges Perec (who wrote an entire novel without using the letter “e”). Still formidably active, the OuLiPo is now recognized as one of the most original, productive and provocative literary enterprises to appear in the past century.

They spawned related groups such as The OuLiPopo (potential detective fiction) with their array of methods for inventing and solving crimes; The Oupeinpo (potential painting); and The Oubapo (potential comic strips) devoted to finding new ways to combine drawing with text. All these groups have their rites: annual dinners, outrageous minutes of meetings, bizarre rules and manifestos and mind-bending techniques. However, their purposes are generous, despite closed membership. They seek to expand the variety of what literature might do, rather than dictate what it cannot do or should do. They are a positive, enlivening presence in the discipline of creative writing and students and new writers are urged towards The OuLiPo Compendium (Atlas, 1998) edited by Harry Matthews and Alastair Brotchie.

One of the best places for new fiction writers to start is Queneau’s tale Exercises in Style (Gallimard, 1947). On a crowded bus at midday, the author observes one man accusing another of jostling him deliberately. When a seat is vacated, the first man appropriates it. Later, in another part of town, the author sees the man being advised by a friend to sew another button on his coat. That is all there is to it. Except that Queneau retells this unexceptional tale ninety-nine times, employing the sonnet and the Alexandrine, “Ze Ffrench” and “Cockney”. An “Abusive” chapter heartily deplores the events; “Opera English” lends them grandeur. It is a tour de force in stylistic demonstration, and teaches even as it pleases.

The playfulness of OuLiPo behaviour and ideas can be liberating, especially in a generative fiction or poetry workshop. There is nothing especially new about the practice of ‘restriction being liberation’. Certainly, in ancient poetry, as in mathematics, the art of numbers was the art of everything. It is a re-formalisation of a practice whose roots lie in rhetorical and compositional challenges that medieval teachers set for themselves and for their students, as we saw in Chapter One. It echoes the tight technical work of the troubadours, as well as the games with form played by

Elizabethan Court poets, and even highly popular Victorian parlour “word games” enjoyed in the world before television and cinema.

One of the more straightforward exercises for you to try (to gain an idea of what OuLiPo can offer you) is ‘N + 7’ or ‘NOUN + 7’. Take a pre-existing creative work, or one of your own. Read through the piece (it can be fiction, creative nonfiction or poetry) and note the position of all the nouns. Look up these nouns in a dictionary one by one, and then count forwards in the dictionary by seven nouns (not seven words) for every one. For example, taking the first stanza of John Keats famous Ode (NE2: 872):

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!

  Close bosom friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

  With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

To bend with apples the moss’d cottage trees,

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

  With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

  For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Using a school dictionary, I counted forward seven nouns from the word ‘season’ and reached the word ‘sea-wall’. Every single noun is swapped by the serendipitous new word; a quite different ‘potential poem’ develops:

To Aviation

Sea-wall of mistresses and mellow fruitfulness!

Close bother fringe of the maturing Sunday-School;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With frustration the vintners that round the theatres run;

To bend with appointments the moss’d cotton trench,

And fill all frustration with ripeness to the cork;

To swell the governess, and plump the headache shelters

   With a sweet ketchup; to set budding more,

And still more, later fluids for the beggars,

Until they think warm deaconesses will never cease,

  For Summons has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cellulite.

The point is not to produce a new and great work of literature, nor is the purpose to subject existing work to ridicule. The point is to play, and to yield fresh ideas and connections. The approach is clever and charming, but it is not an ideology as some followers think; it is the opposite. The OuLiPo create thought-experiments out of a scrabble of letters and language. Nothing might come of it, but the potential is there, as in scientific and thought-experiment. One might do worse, for example, than write a poem that takes as its starting point ‘headache shelters’; or to write a short story that unfolds the reasons why the vintners are frustrated and why they might be running around a theatre; who is bent with appointments; and why the governess is pregnant.


June 27, 2008

So You Want to Write a Long Poem

The Sonne Rising by John Donne

This entry looks at two long poems recently published: The Broken Word by Adam Foulds and For All We Know by Ciaran Carson. My thanks to Fiona Sampson for commissioning this review and to Poetry Review in which it first appeared. Part of this piece also generated a lot of comment in the previous entry about the Troubador Poetry Event. I have learned a good deal more about some longer poems I have missed out on, and I encourage you to send in more recommendations. Thanks, David.

Longer poetry was once as commonplace as tapestries. Taking Virgil as exemplar, poets honed early skill on the pastoral, lyric and dialogue poem before moving on to the pastures new of long poem and epic. Not Adam Foulds. Foulds stakes his very first poetic claim with this book-length narrative poem. It is an icily arresting debut; and stealthy in its composition in that it is spliced into ten poems of roughly consistent tone. The narrator is pitilessly observant while the protagonist, Tom, moves from being ultra-observant to ultra-pitiless. The pacing of these ten linked poems performs like fractured chaptering: this is what a novella might look and feel like when stripped to its essence.

The sequence records the fortunes of Tom as he moves from innocence to brutalisation during the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s – the broken word of the title is the oath made by members of the Kikuyu tribespeople, along with members of the Embu and Meru, to throw out the English colonial settlers. Between school and university, Tom visits his white settler parents in Kenya and gets caught up in the violent oppression of the Kikuyi people by English forces. As the violence escalates Tom’s involvement slides into individual and pack-like sadism; he becomes a predator freeze-framed in a feeding frenzy:

Tom saw the man look straight at him,

clownish with terror

as he pulled the trigger,

saw the bullet make a splash

in the man’s bare chest.

‘5: Night Fires’

Freeze-framing is a speciality of this kind of writing. The poet-critic David Wheatley has compared the ‘sticky intensity’ of Foulds’ writing to Keith Douglas’s desert poems, and there is something in that—a question of how we choose to observe horror. What we are invited to witness, as with Douglas, are men becoming stone through their collusion with horror and easy murder, while other men – sometimes the same men it should be said - are reduced to skin, blood and bone. As the narrator of the poem indicates:

Tom retaining ever less of himself.

He’d seen a hide prepared once on the farm,

the creamy, yellowish fat of the underside

corrugating in front of the strigil

then deftly slapped into a wooden bowl

for some other purpose.

‘7: Compound Nine’

The character of Tom is flayed into a kind of nothingness by the experience of atrocity and genocide, yet flays himself further as his brutalisation releases into Tom a monster-identity he did not realise he possessed; and - Foulds might be saying – an identity we are all capable of releasing into ourselves given the circumstances, or the rules.

Ciaran Carson prefaces his excellent book-length sequence For All We Know with a quotation from Glenn Gould’s So You Want to Write a Fugue: ‘Fugue must perform its frequently stealthy work with continuously shifting melodic fragments that remain, in the ‘tune’ sense, perpetually unfinished’. What are the qualities that make for a successful long poem or sequence? Are they sound, scene-making and tone? Are decisions over sound similar to those that guide longer musical composition?

To return to Adam Foulds for comparison: the writing in The Broken Word is eye-catching; there are moments of visionary imagery; but the narrative and character-voicing are the writer’s foremost priorities. Any good fiction writer – Foulds is a prize-winning novelist - depends on the dream or fantasy of scenes that are true to life or, at least, carry verisimilitude. In that respect, Adam Foulds’ book is truer – in terms of fiction - than Carson’s. But while Foulds moves his scenes steadily forward from A to Z (you can sense the hour-hand moving with the pen), Carson prefers a collage or a shaken kaleidoscope to carry verisimilitude. His is a poetry of rapid, filmic gestures, of flashbacks and lively jump-cuts. Carson is also the more confident technician of poetic sound over the long distance of his poem: For All We Know is a shifting beguiling racket, multi-voiced, exuberant and vituperative. Using Gould’s statement Carson’s work is certainly ‘in the ‘tune’ sense, perpetually unfinished’, and the unfinished nature of its soundscapes suits the subject matter of its sometimes interlocking, sometimes fractured, stories perfectly or, as he writes in the coda of the poem:

As you might hear every possible babble of language

in bells that rumble and peal to celebrate victory […]

as the fugue must reiterate its melodic fragments

in continuously unfinished tapestries of sound […]

as the words of the song when remembered each time around

remind us of other occasions at different times […]

so I return to the question of those staggered repeats

as my memories of you recede into the future.

‘Zugzwang’

The context for the composition of these two new long poems is important, not least because the last twenty years have shown how we have begun to establish a renewed tradition for the creation of a longer poetry that assimilates and melds both sound and scene. We have seen longer poems and sequences thrive under the hands, notably, of Anne Carson (Autobiography of Red), Les Murray (Fredy Neptune), Derek Walcott (Omeros), John Fuller (The Space of Joy), Gwyneth Lewis (Parables and Faxes), Alice Oswald (Dart) and Geoffrey Hill (almost everything since The Triumph of Love). Muldoon’s ‘Incantata’ showed us the prosodic possibilities of the long poem at top speed and full formal stretch; while recently Deryn Rees Jones’s fantastical noir long poem Quiver, Mario Petrucci’s Heavy Water and Fiona Sampson’s The Distance Between Us tested the way voicing and voices can be given life across the distance of a sequence and refracted through that notion of continuously shifting melodic fragments.

All these immaculate examples, along with the books under review, show us how narrative can be carried, looped, and fractured within the stretchable mesh-like force-field of longer poems. We might say the longer poem is back—who will write the new Fairie Queene? Not long ago in Britain the tyranny of the competition-size or colophon-sized poem sapped ambitions for long poems. In fact they never went away. We have simply begun to take fresh notice of their challenges, exactions and soundscapes and, since most readers of poetry are poets or aspiring poets, we are possibly less insecure about performing as readers over such a distance.


April 27, 2008

‘A wren–haunted S of a stream’: at Stones Barn #4

Wren by Sergey Yeliseev

         

     One key difference is the way Stones Barn is organised and run, as compared to Arvon. Arvon is a national organisation with a guiding council and centre directors; Stones Barn is one woman’s cultural enterprise, albeit with a goodly number of close and clever friends helping and suggesting. In the end though, Stones Barn is Maddy Priors’ vision and, without her, it would be a quite different experience – in personal as well as professional ways. For example, the most magical experience for me was when I was sat in the front pew of Bewcastle Church (right)and MaddyBewcastle Cross and Church suddenly sang the haunting song ‘Bewcastle’, without accompaniment, in the pew seven rows behind me. The church, deserted apart from Maddy, Anette and three poets, filled and unfurled with this aurora borealis of a voice over five minutes. According to the poets outside, the song carried easily through the walls and across the graveyard under snow.

In terms of hospitality, talent and efficiency there is no difference between Arvon and Stones Barn: both provide great, sometimes miraculous artistic experiences. In terms of artistic and cultural impact, they both provide superb facilities and tutors. Arvon’s courses are slightly longer than those of Stones Barn, but Stones Barn is slightly cheaper in price – although this does not include accommodation (but this part of the world provides good deals for accommodation and pub food).

I think you should try both experiences. What Stones Barn has in spades is a kind of natural playfulness: the barn is a full-on play-room, and outside are fantastically wild and interesting landscapes. If you go, make sure you go into Maddy’s two woodlands – one has a wren-haunted S of a stream; the other has a delightful reedy mini-wetland. We did a placement-poetry workshop using these woods - see photos below and elsewhere in these blogs..

Helen Moore Placed PoemThere is excellent walking too. The hike to Bewcastle church is short but, in a blizzard, nothing less than epic. We did a walking-workshop during which the weather turned to white-out. It produced some truly remarkable writing. One poet got lost in the slicing snow; a slight panic ensued during which roads were searched by other poets; then a local handyman (trade name Andy Man) discovered the poet making her way Shackleton-like towards the border. I was sorry to leave Stones Barn and will look forward to returning.

Helen Moore Sphagnum Poem

Placed Poem 11

Placed Poem 12

Placed Poem 14

Placed Poem 15

Placed Poem 16


April 24, 2008

‘Life as it can be, not as it should be’: at Stones Barn #2

Bewcastle Woods

Photo: Bewcastle Woodland

       Clearly there is some magic at work at Stones Barn. Not the magic of human invention; more the natural magic of the ‘haunted air and gnomed mine’ of Keats’ Lamia – it is a place where the intersections between the humanised, controlled landscape meet our beforehand: where our history meets our pre-history. When the night arrives and strips itself of cloud-cover, the stars are a sudden glinting colander above you - there is no light pollution. As one of Maddy’s friends, Anette, pointed out to me, you can watch satellites in orbit from here - which we then did, during immaculate silence.

In a place like this, it is easier to begin believing in alternative universes when you are literally living in one such alternative universe, and can drive to the next one twenty miles away at the intersection to the M6. That is its purpose, Stones Barn, and a modest one – to take people out Singing at Stones Barnof the lives for a short time, not for some holiday from their selves, but as holiday for their selves. Life as it can be, not as it should be – an alternative world which is familiar because it can be returned to, or turned to in the mind once the course is over. Participants learn poetry and music and return with these into their lives. As a poetry tutor I only have the Arvon Foundation’s experience to compare this with; and it is different in subtle and interesting ways.


April 22, 2008

‘Lazering through a Blizzard’: at Stones Barn #1

‘Lazering through a Blizzard’: at Stones Barn #1

Snow leaf printing

         For me poetic forms are like living forms, the forms of life I studied as an ecologist; and recent serious illness has reminded me that life itself is a form to which we write our own poetry, even if that poetry takes the form of actions and relationships between people and with the natural world - as well as words. To that end one of the first courses I have taught since becoming ill was informed by mortality, sure, but more sharply by the mortality of aspects of the natural world; and by the inverse – by sheer life, by exuberance, rebirth and play. This course was set in Stones Barn.

Stones Barn
Stones Barn is an artistic retreat set up and run by the folk and roots singer Maddy Prior. At her side, a small team of serenely efficient friends help with everything from making delicious lunches to running students to and from Carlisle railway station. The stone barn itself is across the farmyard from Maddy’s own house near Bewcastle. Bewcastle hides among the bracken-moors of the marches between Hadrian’s Wall and the Scottish borders. This was a no-mans land of rievers and covenanters - some of the farms are built as castles and peel towers. Bewcastle itself seems a slip of a place, almost a turn in a road on a moor. You could pass it by simply by looking the wrong way for two seconds. The whole area still feels liminal but tough.

Bewcastle was the site of a major Roman camp - a thousand soldiers once lived up here - and then a castle belonging to Richard III. A rather beautiful stone cross dating to the 7th Century stands in the yard of a restored church – there is a good exhibition about its history in a nearby outhouse. And that’s it. But that’s a lot, especially when you bring in the weather which, last week, decided to be everything. It is hard not to believe in miracles when you see the sun lazering through a blizzard; when hard hail turns to rain as though somebody had thrown a switch in the sky.

Maddy Prior is one of the most gifted folk singers of our time. Her Stones Barn programme concerns itself mainly with the experience of singing and folk music – experience as teaching. In collaboration with The Poetry School, Stones Barn put on its first poetry courses this year and thanks to a confluence of circumstances and goodwill (thank you, Tamar Yoseloff) I was the first poetry tutor to make my way into this engine room of British folk/roots traditions (and British folk/roots experiment: remember that Steeleye Span were ground-breakers in their time).

Maddy Prior photgraphed by David Morley


February 22, 2008

How Do Writers Write? –

Creation theories

Review by Jeremy Treglown (pictured right)

Published Financial Times : January 19 2008 00:31 | Last updated: January 19 2008 00:31

How I Write: The Secret Lives of AuthorsJeremy Treglown
Edited by Dan Crowe and Philip Oltermann
Rizzoli International £19.95, 192 pages

The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing
By David Morley Cambridge University Press £14.99, 290 pages
FT bookshop
price: £11.99

A Novel in a Year: A Novelist’s Guide to Being a Novelist
By Louise Doughty
Pocket Books £7.99, 272 pages
FT bookshop price: £6.39

Your Writing Coach: From Concept to Character, from Pitch to Publication
By Jurgen Wolff
Nicholas Brearly £9.99, 280 pages
FT bookshop price: £7.99

NW15: The Anthology of New Writing
Edited by Bernardine Evaristo and Maggie Gee
Granta Books £9.99, 320 pages
FT bookshop price: £7.99

How do writers write? Can they be taught to do it? The answers to the first question are almost as many as there are writers. Some need a view to look at. A.M. Homes, for example, says she can’t manage without being able to see a tree. To others, it’s necessary to face a wall. A few like to have music playing, more require silence. (Nicholson Baker buys earplugs in packs of 200 off the web.) Talismanic objects may help – tin soldiers (Javier Marias), glass paperweights and bits of rock (A.S. Byatt). Joyce Carol Oates admits to looking at a portrait of herself. Superstition and solipsism apart, there are more practical methods and motivations. A.L. Kennedy takes a notebook everywhere, Alain de Botton needs a big desk. Tibor Fischer says that his main impetus can be summarised in one word: money.

These nostrums come from How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors. No one in this handsomely illustrated volume says much about readers, but a real or imagined audience is as important to most authors as anything else, not least to discourage them from writing nonsense. If Dan Crowe and Philip Oltermann, who put the collection together, had been thinking hard enough about you and me, they might have changed the word “secret” in their title.

But while nothing can be secret once it is published, it’s true that the word has another meaning, to do with a knack or trick that can be imparted, as in the “secret” of someone’s success. Which is where teaching may or may not come in. Courses in writing, along with how-to books about it, have grown hugely in number in recent decades. But are there any secrets to writing, in the sense of tips that can be passed on?

In some respects writing is no different from any other human activity: cooking, for example, violin-playing, gardening or tennis. Given aptitude, anyone will benefit from the advice of a skilled practitioner, inspired motivator or bullying expert – not to mention an appreciative audience. Given a lot of aptitude and also a degree of obsession which, as Hanif Kureishi says here, is crucial to artists, outside help can sometimes be dispensed with. Even the most brilliant autodidacts, the naturals, often turn out to have had a guru of some kind along the way. But then there are those who have absolutely no aptitude. “Creativity”, it’s often claimed, is something we all have. If only. The fact is, some people just can’t write, just as some are tone deaf and some hopeless at catching a ball. For them, for us, no teacher will ever do any good.

The absolutely untalented, though, are not much more common than those at the other end of the spectrum. Most are somewhere in between: teachable. Yet there’s a strong prejudice that writing can’t be taught. People who send their children on a music summer school while they themselves spend a week being taught water-skiing, will confidently assert that “creative writing” is bogus. It may be the adjective that puts them off. Used in almost any situation from juggling “creatively” with accounts or arguments to pressing a few keys on a computer to “create” a file, the word and its cognates seem strangely suspect in connection with the arts. No one talks about “creative music” – and “creative sculpture” or “creative painting” would be a tautology. “Creative writing” isn’t, in fact, a new way of distinguishing artistic, imaginative dimensions of the activity from more practical ones. Still, there’s something pretentious about it.

Leave out the adjective, though, and you have to deal with some little-remembered facts. As The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing reminds us, writing, like reading, has always been central to the western educational curriculum. From ancient times until the renaissance (and in Scotland for much longer) it was called rhetoric. In British schools, by analogy with other curricular subjects such as Latin and French, it became known as “English”. English lessons involved, among other things, composition, tests of comprehension and exercises in precis. All of these were and are valuable to the writer – though how valuable depended, as with any teaching, on the qualities of the teacher. If you were told, as many children were, not only to write a composition entitled “My Holidays”, but to draft a story which began or ended with a given sentence, or a poem rhyming ababcc, you were being taught to write.

Yet the general assumption has always been that writers are born, not made. Asked what made a poet of Wilfred Owen, many readers would claim that the sheer force of his terrible experiences somehow poured through his nervous system and on to the page as if he was a medium or a lightning conductor. Owen encouraged this Romantic view of creative genius. “The poetry”, he famously wrote, “is in the pity.” But the poetry is also in the poetry: for example, in the experiments with half-rhyme which he shared with more skilled contemporaries such as Edward Thomas and Robert Frost – experiments they worked on and practised like musicians playing scales.

The sheer hard work of writing, as of any art, is what gets talked about least. In the post-Warhol age of celebrity worship – a phenomenon which the current buzz about creativity is arguably part of – people tend to be more interested in whether writers talk to themselves when they’re inventing dialogue, as Jonathan Franzen does, or whether, as Neil LaBute claims, all he needs to get him going is a Sinatra album, than in being told that writing can be the most lonely and labour intensive of all art forms. Yet no work of art takes longer to produce than a novel.

Part of the point of Louise Doughty’s title A Novel in a Year is that it’s a challenge. Most novels are written over a much longer period, yet few of those who believe they “have a novel in them” seem prepared for the sheer job of writing, its dailiness.

This is one of the areas where handbooks such as Doughty’s, or Jurgen Wolff’s more media-focused Your Writing Coach, can be helpful. Wolff’s book – his fifth of its kind – is partly self-help-psychological: how to maintain your confidence, motivation and energy, how to manage your time. He’s full of encouraging examples, including some which ought to be discouraging but aren’t, such as how long it took J.K. Rowling to find a publisher and the fact that even when she got one, she was told she would never make any money out of writing for children. Most of Wolff’s book, though, consists of practical tips, many of them more far-reaching than they seem at first glance. The Commandments of Elmore Leonard, for example, quoted here, conclude: “10. Try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip.” Wolff suggests a number of ways of getting the imagination going, such as his “what if ... ?” exercise. And he is commonsensical on matters such as whether it’s all right to send out multiple submissions and what agents charge.

Louise Doughty’s A Novel in a Year started life as a newspaper column combined with a website, and deals with issues raised by its readers and by the writing they submitted. Doughty favours a more experience-based approach than Wolff – she recommends spending a day in court, for example, or a trip in a helicopter. And her exercises are progressively more difficult and subtle – she moves from directly describing an accident one has experienced to using such a situation in a metaphorical way.

As in Wolff’s book, many of the most memorable bits are quotations from successful authors, such as Kingsley Amis’s maxim: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair.” The fact that such advice stands out suggests that even in so crowded a publishing market there may be room for another anthology-cum-commonplace book about writing. One item to include would be a thought-provoking essay by Julian Barnes published in a collection of new writing, NW15, edited by Bernardine Evaristo and Maggie Gee. The piece is about characterisation: in particular, how to handle factual detail in historically based fiction, and the adjustments of scale this may involve according to how important a character is to the story. The examples are taken from Barnes’s brilliant Arthur & George but the points made, especially about “fictional facts”, can be generalised and are fascinating.

Looking at the details of a particular process of writing in this way is among the most useful experience a novice writer can have. Simple, practical, encouraging handbooks such as Doughty’s and Wolff’s can also be of use, though some readers may want the bar set higher. David Morley’s Cambridge Introduction should satisfy anyone more ambitious, not least because his approach is that of a poet: someone to whom finding the right words matters more than finding a niche market. I happen to work with Morley but it would be a false scruple to let that prevent me saying what will be self-evident to anyone else who reads this book: that it is about writing not as a hobby or even a job but as a vocation, an ideal, a passion, sometimes a torture.

Morley teaches writing and deals head-on with doubts about the value of such work – he quotes Flannery O’Connor: “I am often asked if universities stifle writers. My view is that they don’t stifle enough of them.” In particular, he faces down those who claim that writer-teachers inevitably become institutionalised. Truly creative people, he argues, change and dynamise institutional structures rather than succumbing to them. And he insists that good writing comes from, among other things, good reading: “If you are not interested in reading the work of other authors ... why should anybody be interested in reading you?”

There’s another side to this argument. Just as reading makes you a better writer, writing makes you a more discriminating reader – in the same way as learning to play an instrument, however badly, enhances your enjoyment of music. No one, of course, wants to be told this when they’re starting out, when their dream is to be Jacqueline du Pre or Martha Gellhorn. Artists can be difficult, self-important people and any attempt to teach them is likely to involve collisions with their desire to differentiate themselves and their work.

Writing begins where it ends – in solitude: the writer’s solitude before the reader’s. And what goes on in the head of the lonely writer is as likely to be competitive and exploitative as anything more sociable. If I had ambitions as an imaginative writer and had been given this crop of volumes by a well-meaning friend, one I would find especially helpful is NW15: a lively anthology of new fiction, poetry and articles by 50 or so writers, some well-established such as Doris Lessing and Robin Robertson, but many of them just getting going. What I could use would come partly from its range – the sense that here, and here, are things I might try. And then there are master-class items such as Barnes’s. The main thing, though, would be that a stimulating proportion of its contents might help me cultivate the belief-cum-delusion crucial to all art: “I can do it better.”

And that, in turn, might get me writing. Because, in the end, if you really want to write, you just have to do it. Reading a book about it may help – but it may also be a bit like sitting disconsolately on the edge of the pool with a book called How to Swim.

Jeremy Treglown is professor of English literature at Warwick university and author of ‘V.S. Pritchett: A Working Life’ (Pimlico)


February 18, 2008

Hosting The Guardian's Poetry Workshop

My sincere apologies for a break in this blog.

Over the past week I have been cropped by Diabetes Type 1, a merciless condition that destroys the body’s insulin production completely and finally. With time, insulin and a good regimen of clinical care I shall manage this as best I can. However, I have been restricted to typing messages and letters with one hand, and with the screen and touchpad above my head - from the ward bed! To escape the doctors’ censure I have had to be covert, typing in the small hours while the ward around me snores and sleep-talks. The next few blogs therefore are adapted from projects before I got unwell, or stuff of interest I found while incapacitated. Here goes:

Over the next month I am honoured to be hosting the Guardian’s Poetry Workshop online. The text for the workshop is below. If you want to submit poems for the workshop then please follow this link to the Guardian now:

http://books.guardian.co.uk/poetryworkshop/

The workshop is mostly spent outdoors, which is where I want to be now, and is accompanied by a cropped photograph of my recent training in falconry. Unfortunately, the Guardian cropped the hawk and not me. I restore the hawk in its glory here mostly to remind myself of the day, but also the sources of some of my own writing.

David Morley with Hawk, Warwick

Text from The Guardian
An ecologist by vocation and training, David Morley’s poetry has won many writing awards and his critically-acclaimed eighth collection The Invisible Kings (written partly in Romani) was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation in autumn 2007. David directs the Warwick Writing Programme at The University of Warwick where he is Professor of Creative Writing. He writes essays, criticism and reviews for The Guardian, PN Review and Poetry Review, and is a recent winner of a National Teaching Fellowship. In 2007, he also published The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing from Cambridge University Press; an edition of Geoffrey Holloway’s Collected Poems from Arrowhead Press; and co-edited the controversial anthology New Romanian Poets for Heaventree Press.

Take a look at his workshop which he has called ‘Shakespeare’s Field Trip’.

I hope that most of my books are celebrations - especially of language and the natural world. Part of my working life was as a field ecologist, probing the magic of invisible animal kingdoms. In my most recent poetry book The Invisible Kings, the Romani language attempts an opening between fields of language. Romani contains many words and phrases from other tongues - language is absorbed as it is travelled through. Gypsy place-names for example are precise riddles that speak shrewdly from the travellers’ point of view. I like the notion of precision and playfulness of these words. As a field ecologist I get a similar buzz from science’s terminology and the names of species - especially birds and insects. This month’s workshop explores this natural precision and play and how you can make poems that carry and contain those natural energies - in language drawn from ecology, and from travelling into language that describes nature.

Your first exercise is a real field trip for which you will need warm clothes, coffee and a notebook. Take a natural history field guide with you. To capture your first poem, please rise before dawn one day. Make your way to the nearest green and open space, or woodland. Note down the process of the dawn through its natural consequences on animals; and on the way trees and flowers react to the light, and the action of the different declensions of light on water. I also want you to observe the surface of a stone wall or a rock very closely, making notes on everything that you see. Make nothing up – use your field guide. Your exercise is to capture a poem out of what you observe or, more precisely, to let the observations, the things, the life, present the poem to you. Do not impose your own aesthetic judgement, emotions, or mood on your poem as you write it. Try being entirely self-effacing and precise in this poem, as many of the best poets, naturalists and scientists are, but also playful in how you “perform” your poem. What I want you to do is go back to the place with your poem, and place the poem somewhere where it can be seen by other visitors; or hang it from the branch of a tree. By placing your poem in the “publication” of a natural space, you are echoing a moment in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, when a lover hangs sonnets from the trees of The Forest of Arden: ‘…these trees shall be my books, / And in their barks my thoughts I’ll character / That every eye which in this forest looks / Shall see thy virtue witnessed everywhere…’. For your interest, the first exercise was pioneered in a remnant of the ancient Forest of Arden in Warwickshire, England. Send the poem into me through the e-mail address below and also send (if you can) a good digital photograph of your poem “set” in its natural space. Be sure to go back some other time to tidy up and leave the place as you found it…

The second exercise continues our fieldwork on precision and playfulness but is a fieldtrip that travels into the language of the natural world. Your game is to take a natural history field-guide and locate a poem within it. Write it out as your own, before altering it as you wish in order to make a final poem that imitates the precision of language of a field-guide, and a precision of your own observation in the writing. This is an example of “found poetry” of course, but one where you shape the words to refashion them into being more than their original parts.

To get comfortable with this second exercise, take any good field guide you have to hand and open it at random – allow chance to have its say on your choice. Believe me, you will find precise, and sometimes magically incisive, description, and names that seem to fall from fairytales, and a language as precise as it is playful to the ear. In the following example, I have broken and reshaped some descriptive prose (stolen from the Collins Field Guide to British and European Trees) into counted syllabic lines; I have placed episodes of linked description into stanzas, and indented lines in a way which forces the eye to move around the page to find connections and answers. See how the shaping has altered the way we hear and read this text. It is more playful, sure, but it still holds to a precision of perception. Try this yourself.

‘The European Larch’

The Alps—

replaced by Norway Spruce

in colder, wetter areas—

with ranges

in the Tatra and Sudetan

plains and mountains of Poland.

Long cultivated and abundant:

in older plantations, shelterbeds

and parks,

away from cities and the driest, drabbest areas.

Timber

tough and rot-resistant;

Tatra and Sudetan forms make

the finest

variety plantation trees.

Variants: ‘Pendula’, that

broad and depressed-looking tree displays

exaggeratedly weeping shoots;

most rare;

even rarer, spectacularly weeping cultivars.

Shape: spire-

like, on a trunk straight up

only in the finest, sheltered

trees; often

broad and characterful in age

in arid or exposed sites.

The fine shoots hang under the branches.

Blond in winter. More finely, spiki–

ly twig–

gy—set against, say, the Ginkgo or, say, a Swamp Cypress.

Saplings

grow wildly twisting trunks.

They unbend with maturity.

Leaves: vivid

green, two pale bands beneath. Cones:

soon brown: egg-shaped when ripe, their

scales not or scarcely not curving.

Female flowers: bright as rubies in

mid-Spring

among new green needles. They are easily overlooked.

By entering into an engagement with non-literary fields of knowledge, we open their languages (and even their strange jargon) for our use as poets. By doing so, we release fresh themes, verbal energy and subjects for our shaping imagination. Marianne Moore was most gifted exponent of this technique. As William Logan said of her practice, ‘Marianne Moore found the poetry lying asleep within prose, in manuals and monographs, advertisements and government reports’. Now it’s your turn to find the poetry asleep in the language of ecology and to wake it up into your own poems. I look forward to seeing the results of these field trips!

Copyright: David Morley and Guardian Newspapers


January 23, 2008

The Coffees Are On You, Dear Alison…

Alison Kennedy

        Alison Kennedy Wins 2007 Costa Book of the Year 

Friend and colleague Alison Kennedy is a highly-valued member of our creative writing team at Warwick.  I am delighted that she has won the 2007 Costa Book of the Year. Next time you're in, Alison, I think the coffees are on you... Meanwhile, many congratulations.

Here is the announcement from Costa's public affairs office.

'Scottish author and stand-up comedian A.L. Kennedy has won the 2007 Costa Book of the Year award for her fifth novel, Day; the story of a former RAF prisoner-of-war returning to Germany to confront his demons.  The announcement was made this evening (Tuesday 22nd January) at an awards ceremony held at The Intercontinental Hotel in central London.

The Costa Book Awards recognise the most enjoyable books of the last year by writers based in the UK and Ireland.  Originally established by Whitbread PLC in 1971, Costa announced its takeover of the sponsorship of the UK's popular and prestigious book prize in 2006.

Despite a morbid fear of flying, Kennedy interrupted her American tour to fly back to the UK for 24 hours to attend the awards ceremony.  The Glasgow-based author spent three years researching the book, which tells of British PoW and Lancaster tailgunner Alfred Day, trying to cope with civilian life in 1949.


Costa's Managing Director, John Derkach, presented Kennedy with a cheque for £25,000 at the glittering awards ceremony.  Day, published by Jonathan Cape, is the eighth novel to take the overall prize. Andrea Levy was the last author to win the Book of the Year with a novel taking the prize in 2004 for Small Island. The Costa Book Awards, formerly the Whitbread Book Awards, were established in 1971 to encourage, promote and celebrate the best contemporary British writing.

About the book:
Alfred Day wanted his war. In its turmoil he found his proper purpose as the tail-gunner in a Lancaster bomber; he found the wild, dark fellowship of his crew, and he found Joyce, a woman to love. But that's all gone now - the war took it away. Now, in 1949, Alfred is winding back time to see where he lost himself. He has taken the role of an extra in a POW film. Shipped out to Germany and an ersatz camp, he picks his way through the cliches that will become all that's left of his war and begins to do what he's never dared to remember. He is looking for some semblance of hope: trying to move forward by going back.

About the author:
Dundee-born A.L. Kennedy is a novelist and stand-up comedian.  She has published four previous novels, two books of non-fiction, and three collections of short stories, most recently Indelible Acts. She also writes for the stage, radio, film and TV.  She has twice (1995 & 2005) been selected as one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists and has won a number of prizes including the Somerset Maugham award, the Encore Award and the 2007 Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year award.  In November, she became the first Scottish writer to win the prestigious American Lannan award. A.L. Kennedy lives in Glasgow and is an Associate Professor with the Warwick University Creative Writing Programme.  She is currently working on new short stories and three films including an adaptation of Day with the writer of the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line.


November 07, 2006

Write as a poet, even when writing prose

In a recent seminar I stated ‘Write as a poet, even when you are writing prose’. This article, from the novelist Jeanette Winterson’s website expands on this elegantly and acutely. I recommend you read it for ideas about your own writing of poetry, and how you might carry the precision and swerve of poetry into your prose (including academic essays). If you wish to cut direct to the source then click on Jeanette’s website:
http://www.jeanettewinterson.com/

‘Virginia Woolf was a great writer. Her voice is distinctive; her style is her own; her work is an active influence on other writers and a subtle influence on what we have come to expect from modern literature.
She was an experimenter who managed to combine the pleasure of narrative with those forceful interruptions that the mind needs to wake itself. Familiar things lull us. We do not notice what we already know. In art, newness and boldness is vital, not as a rebuke to the past but as a way of keeping the past alive. Virginia Woolf was keenly aware of what she had inherited but she knew that her inheritance must be put to work. Every generation needs its own living art, connected to what has gone before it , but not a copy of what has gone before it.

Virginia Woolf was not an imitator. She was an innovator who re-defined the novel and pointed the way towards its future possibilities.
When Vintage asked me to commission new introductions for Woolf’s nine novels I wanted to say no. Woolf herself had written that any piece of work that needs an introduction or an explanation is like a table that needs a beer mat jammed under one leg to make it level. Before a bevy of American PhD students write in to tell me that it was a wedge of paper and not a beer mat, let me say that the problem is exactly so. Woolf’s fiction has been overwhelmed by facts. Her diaries have given licence to a kind of perpetual commentary on every aspect of her being, who she knew, what she wore, how many times a week she washed her hair (I am not making this up), if a different Oxford Street would have meant a different Mrs Dalloway, whether or not she had sex with Vita Sackville West. Did she have sex with Leonard? Was she abused? And so on until a play on the facts warps into a documentary of factoids. Under the stress of this tabloid-style scholarship, her books disappear. Maud Ellmann, writing for the new edition of To the Lighthouse, reminds us that, ” (the Ramsays), together with their guests, children, pets and household objects, can all be traced to Woolf’s biography – and yet the mystery they accrue within her art can never be dispelled by reference to her life.”
Art into autobiography is bad enough but Critical Theory is worse. If you are very smart, like Ellmann or Julia Kristeva, you can summon up a hypertext that floats over the original like an astral body – connected, clear, unobscuring. If you are not smart – and Theory seems to attract the mentally challenged – then all we hear is a kind of intestinal groaning, length after length of tortured sentences coiled round a fugitive idea.

No one can read this rubbish except perhaps other academics squatting over the same pail. They sign to each other but they make no sense to us. If this was rocket science it might be excusable but the special knowledge needed for art is of the communicable kind. Art is communication.

I felt that while Virginia Woolf’s work needs nothing added, it does need some weight taken away. She has been hi-jacked by so many self-interest groups – feminists, theorists, modernists, historicists etc., that it is difficult to come to the work in its own right, on its own terms. Of course this is a problem for all important writers but Woolf suffers it to a degree of distortion unfelt, say, by Dickens or T.S. Eliot. Some writers seem to attract it more than others. Plath does, Angela Carter doesn’t. I wondered if there was a way to open up the work for students and the general reader. A way past the gossip into the text.

A way through the maze of scholarship into the map of the book.
I decided to get away from the usual Introduction format. For each volume I have commissioned two short essays, one by a writer and the other by a well-known critic or academic. From the writer I wanted something very personal. Writers read differently to other people. For a writer, all literature is contemporary. If the language endures, the thought endures. Writers eavesdrop on each other across time. This is a two-way process, because what has been written is continually changed by what is being written. To put it better, as Auden did, ‘The words of a dead man are modified in the guts of the living.’
I chose writers I like to read and I asked them to write as much or as little as pleased them. I am not interested in the tyranny of length. One good sentence is better than a hundred pages of blather. Perhaps with this in mind I asked four poets: Eavan Boland, Carol Ann Duffy, Jackie Kay and Jo Shapcott. I wanted to be specific about matching titles to authors. I felt there should be a connection of some kind and also that the writer and the critic should be in sympathy. This has happened. The essays are sharp, imaginative and full of zest. Listen to Eavan Boland on To the Lighthouse -
“This is not a novel of Englishness; it is not a novel of history, it is not a document of society. I mistook a case study of these realities for a deeply subversive, increasingly heartbroken dialogue with them. But that dialogue still needs to be grasped at the angle it was created: slantwise, askew.”

Slantwise. Askew. These are a poet’s words, but as Carol Ann Duffy says in her piece on Mrs Dalloway, ’ We carry poetry inside us, even if we do not read it or write it. Woolf is a writer who allows her readers to stand inside the lived moment.’

Intensity. Intimacy. Woolf wrote as a poet. In her introduction to The Waves, Gillian Beer talks about what it is that Woolf helps us to discover – “Something permeable, something intimate, something closer to our silent experience than fiction usually permits. And something that seeks through language to reach the habitual states of being where language hardly counts, as Bernard, the professor-writer among the characters at last perceives, ‘Blue, red even – they distract, even they hide with thickness instead of letting the light through.’ ”
I wanted to let the light through. I wanted the introductions to rip down the curtains and throw open the doors so that the work could be entered freely and with pleasure.

I was very lucky to get Peter Ackroyd to write on Orlando – who better to write on the biography of transformation than the man who has transformed biography? And he delivered three weeks early, which cannot be said for Jackie Kay or Valentine Cunningham to whom I had to send Hand of Doom faxes in Bodoni MT 72 point Ultra Bold.
Never mind. What I got was a tornado of a piece from Jackie Kay for Between the Acts and the kind of unshowy deeply intelligent scholarship from Val Cunningham on Mrs Dalloway that reminds you of what learning could be like. All the critics in this series, whether Lisa Jardine, Frances Spalding or Steven Connor, know how to engage their readers. Nothing ponderous has been allowed, but then nobody ponderous was asked.

For Jacob’s Room, Woolf’s War novel, Lawrence Norfolk’s lovely, very English meditation is set against the tougher, European sensibility of Elisabeth Bronfen, Professor of Comparative Literature at Zurich. Susan Hill on Woolf’s last novel, The Years, and Erica Wagner on her first, The Voyage Out, offer new and pleasing readings of books, that in my view, belong as much in the body of Woolf’s work as the rest.
Jo Shapcott calls Night and Day ‘a love song about London’. Margaret Reynolds, co-editor on the series, jams into Orlando like an academic on XTC, opening her introduction with ‘Are you making an appointment to be penetrated on Friday?’ Well, it is a quotation.
I asked for celebration and play because these are qualities strongly present in Woolf’s work. Art is celebration. Celebration of our humanity and imagination.

A celebration of continuing life. These essays are sometimes funny, sometimes moving, always vigorous, never boring. In her piece on Between the Acts, Lisa Jardine drew me to the quote I wanted to describe the introductions in relation to the books themselves:
‘like leaping dolphins in the wake of an ice-breaking vessel.’


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