All 38 entries tagged Warwick Prize For Writing

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January 03, 2013

'My Eyes and Ears are Still Full': Judging the 2012 T.S.Eliot Prize

This piece first appeared in a shortened version inThe Guardian.

Judging the T.S. Eliot Prize has become no less of an undertaking than the Man Booker. Prose may be longer but poetry is denser. This year saw 131 poetry collections arrive in early September, some as marked-up proofs bearing the handwritten corrections of poets. How their precisely perfect notations reminded you that every one of these manuscripts was the labour of years – and the labour of tears. I arranged my world around reading them, and I read every single one. My life was put aside for two months; certainly any thought of writing poetry was removed. It has been the strange and compelling time. The process of submitting myself to this huge whirl of words has been self-annihilating. I was not myself. I became all eye and ear.


What do you hold on to? It helped that I had already reviewed over 40 of the submitted books this year during a manic reviewing programme for Poetry Review under the editorships of George Szirtes, Charles Boyle and Bernardine Evaristo. I already knew, for example, how much I liked a lot of the stuff coming out this year from Salt Publications, Nine Arches Press, Seren, and the brilliantly-named Knives, Forks and Spoons Press. I was disposed to read harder into the volumes of some of the more fugitive presses. I don’t care if a collection is from Picador or Waterloo Press or Two Rivers Press. I stood to attention and gave every poetry book its due.

I subjected each book to a series of physical and aural tests. Listening in on a poem, I read aloud (sometimes to myself or to Warwick University students); or I read in total silence; and sometimes I read against silence. I placed headphones on my ears and filled my mind with other music – Mahler, bird calls, The Beatles – and then I read a poetry book at the same time to test which music sang more strongly. I also took the poems into the fields and read them while I was walking. If they could make me stop walking they were doing very well (that test goes for people too). In these ways, and several others, the number of books was reduced to around 20. A whirlpool of words rang in my mind.

Which books did I love but which failed to win through to the shortlist? My personal favourites included Abi Curtis' The Glass Delusion, Jon Stone’s School of Forgery, Lesley Saunders’ Cloud Camera, Richard Price's Small World, Maria Taylor’s Melanchrini, Andrew Motion’s The Custom House and – all three judges loved this one - William Letford’s astonishing debut Bevel. And what of the shortlist? You have to remember that of the 10 books there are 4 that are already pre-chosen, the Poetry Book Society Choices from Simon Armitage, Paul Farley, Jorie Graham and Sharon Olds. What we were selecting were 6 books by 6 poets. I am proud of them all. Stand to attention, Sean Borodale, Gillian Clarke, Julia Copus, Kathleen Jamie, Jacob Polley and Deryn Rees-Jones! I salute you all. I agree with Michael Longley in saying there's nothing clichéd about our list, that we went with the words on the page. But we also went with the sounds, and my ears and eyes are still full of them.

October 23, 2012

Shortlist for 20th T.S. Eliot Prize Announced

The Poetry Book Society is pleased to announce the shortlist for the 2012 T S Eliot Prize for Poetry.

Judges Carol Ann Duffy (Chair), Michael Longley and David Morley have chosen the shortlist from the record number of 131 books submitted by publishers.

Simon Armitage The Death of King Arthur Faber

Sean Borodale Bee Journal    Jonathan Cape

Gillian Clarke Ice Carcanet

Julia Copus The World’s Two

Smallest Humans Faber

Paul Farley The Dark Film Picador

Jorie Graham P L A C E  Carcanet

Kathleen Jamie The Overhaul Picador

Sharon Olds Stag’s Leap   Jonathan Cape

Jacob Polley The Havocs  Picador

Deryn Rees-Jones Burying the Wren Seren

Chair Carol Ann Duffy said:

‘In a year which saw a record number of submissions, my fellow judges and I are delighted with a shortlist which sparkles with energy, passion and freshness and which demonstrates the range and variety of poetry being published in the UK.’

Poets’ biographies

Simon Armitage

Simon Armitage was born in 1963 and lives in West Yorkshire. He has published nine volumes of poetry, including The Universal Home Doctor and Travelling Songs, both published by Faber in 2002. He has received numerous awards for his poetry including the Sunday Times Author of the Year, one of the first Forward Prizes and a Lannan Award. His bestselling and critically acclaimed translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Faber) was published in 2007. In 2010 Armitage was awarded the CBE for services to poetry. His last collection, Seeing Stars (Faber), was shortlisted for the 2010 T S Eliot Prize.

Sean Borodale

Sean Borodale works as a poet and artist, making scriptive and documentary poems written on location; this derives from his process of writing and walking for works such as Notes for an Atlas (Isinglass, 2003) and Walking to Paradise (1999). He has recently been selected as a Granta New Poet, and Bee Journal is his first collection of poetry. He lives in Somerset .

Gillian Clarke

Gillian Clarke was born in Cardiff , and now lives with her family on a smallholding in Ceredigion. Her collections of poetry include Letter From a Far Country (1982); Letting in the Rumour (1989); The King of Britain's Daughter (1993); and Five Fields (1998). The latter three collections were all Poetry Book Society Recommendations. She has also written for stage, television and radio, several radio plays and poems being broadcast by the BBC. Gillian Clarke's most recent poetry collection is A Recipe for Water (2009). In 2008 she published a book of prose, including a journal of the writer's year, entitled At The Source, and was named as Wales' National Poet. In 2010 she was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry.

Julia Copus

Julia Copus was born in London in 1969. The World’s Two Smallest |Humans and her two previous collections, The Shuttered Eye and In Defence of Adultery, were all Poetry Book Society Recommendations. She has won First Prize in the National Poetry Competition and the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. A radio version of the sequence ‘Ghost’ was shortlisted for the 2011 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. She works as an Advisory Fellow for the Royal Literary Fund.

Paul Farley

Paul Farley was born in Liverpool in 1965. He won the Arvon Poetry Competition in 1996 and his first collection of poetry, The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You (1998), won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. The Ice Age (2002) was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize and won the Whitbread Poetry Award in 2003. In 2004, he was named as one of the Poetry Book Society’s ‘Next Generation’ poets. Further collections are Tramp in Flames (2006) and The Atlantic Tunnel: Selected Poems (2010). He currently lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Lancaster . He also writes radio drama, and several plays have been broadcast on BBC Radio. Field Recordings: BBC Poems 1998-2008 (2009) was shortlisted for the 2010 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. His book of non-fiction, Edgelands: Journeys into England’s Last Wilderness (2010), written with Michael Symmons Roberts, won the 2009 Jerwood Prize for Non-Fiction.

Jorie Graham

Jorie Graham was born in New York City in 1950 and raised in Rome . She has published nine collections of poetry in the UK with Carcanet, most recently Sea Change (2008), Never (2002), Swarm (2000), and The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994, which won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She has taught at the University of Iowa Writers ' Workshop and is currently the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University . She served as a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets from 1997 to 2003.

Kathleen Jamie

Kathleen Jamie was born in Scotland in 1962. She has published several collections of poetry, including: Black Spiders (1982), The Way We Live (1987), The Queen of Sheba (1994), Jizzen (1999), and her selected poems, Mr & Mrs Scotland Are Dead, was published in 2002. Her poetry collection, The Tree House (2004), won the 2004 Forward Prize (Best Collection), and was a PBS Choice. A travel book about Northern Pakistan, The Golden Peak (1993), was recently updated and reissued as Among Muslims: Meetings at the Frontiers of Pakistan (2002). She lives in Fife, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and in 2010 was appointed Chair of Creative Writing at Stirling University .

Sharon Olds

Sharon Olds was born in 1942 in San Francisco . Her first collection of poems, Satan Says (1980), received the inaugural San Francisco Poetry Center Award. The Dead & the Living (1983) received the Lamont Poetry Selection in 1983 and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her other collections include Strike Sparks: Selected Poems (2004) and The Father (1992), which was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize. Her last collection, One Secret Thing ( Jonathan Cape , 2009) explored the themes of war, family relationships and the death of her mother, and was also shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize. She currently teaches creative writing at New York University .

Jacob Polley

Jacob Polley was born in Carlisle in 1975. Picador published his first book of poetry, The Brink, in 2003 and his second, Little Gods, in 2006. His first novel with Picador, Talk of the Town, came out in 2009 and won the 2010 Somerset Maugham Award. Jacob was selected as one of the Next Generation of British poets in 2004. In 2002 he won an Eric Gregory Award and the Radio 4/Arts Council ‘First Verse’ Award. Jacob was the Visiting Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College , Cambridge , 2005-07, and Arts Queensland’s Poet in Residence in 2011.

Deryn Rees-Jones

Deryn Rees-Jones was born in Liverpool in 1968 and was educated at the University of Wales , Bangor , and Birkbeck College , London . She is an Eric Gregory Award winner, and her collection The Memory Tray (Seren, 1994) was shortlisted for a Forward Poetry Prize for Best First Collection. Her other collections of poetry are Signs Round a Dead Body (Seren, 1998), Quiver (Seren, 2004) and Falls & Finds (Shoestring, 2008). She was selected as one of the Poetry Book Society’s ‘Next Generation Poets’ in 2004. Her critical work includes a monograph on Carol Ann Duffy, and the book of essays Consorting with Angels which accompanies Modern Women Poets (Bloodaxe, 2005). She lives in Liverpool.

June 14, 2012

Judging the 2012 T.S. Eliot Prize

T S Eliot

I am delighted to be one of the judges of this year's T.S. Eliot Prize for poetry. I am also honoured. Eliot was one of the first poets whose work was read aloud to me by one of my early mentors. The poetry has stayed with me ever since.

T S Eliot Prize 2012

The Poetry Book Society is delighted to announce the judges for the 2012 T S Eliot Prize for Poetry. Carol Ann Duffy will be Chair and the other two judges will be poets Michael Longley and David Morley.

The judges will meet in October to decide on the ten-book shortlist. The four Poetry Book Society Choices from 2012 are automatically shortlisted for the Prize. The Spring 2012 Choice was The Death of King Arthur by Simon Armitage (Faber) and the Summer Choice was The Dark Film by Paul Farley (Picador). They will be joined on the shortlist by the PBS Autumn Choice, Place by Jorie Graham (Carcanet), and the Winter Choice, which will be announced in August.

The T S Eliot Prize Shortlist Readings will take place on Sunday 13 January 2013 in the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall. The 2010 Readings were held in this new venue for the first time and were a great artistic and audience-building success, attracting 2,000 poetry lovers, one of the biggest audiences for a single poetry event of recent times. The winner of the 2012 Prize will be announced at the award ceremony on Monday 14 January 2013, where the winner will be presented with a cheque for £15,000, donated by Mrs Valerie Eliot, who has generously given the prize money since the inception of the Prize. The shortlisted poets will each receive £1,000.

The T S Eliot Prize Reading Groups scheme will enable reading groups and individual readers to read the shortlist. Specially commissioned reading group notes, together with three poems from each shortlisted collection, will be made available to download from the PBS website. The scheme will target both poetry reading groups and fiction book groups.

The T S Eliot Prize Shadowing Scheme, run by the Poetry Book Society in partnership with the English and Media Centre’s emagazine, will offer A level students a chance to engage with the latest new poetry by shadowing the judges and taking part in a writing competition.

Last year’s winner was John Burnside for his collection Black Cat Bone (Cape). The judges were Gillian Clarke (Chair), Stephen Knight and Dennis O’Driscoll.

The T S Eliot Prize was inaugurated in 1993 to celebrate the Poetry Book Society's 40th birthday, and to honour its founding poet. Now celebrating its twentieth year, the T S Eliot Prize is the ‘world’s top poetry award’ (Louise Jury, The Irish Independent). The Prize is awarded annually to the writer of the best new poetry collection published in the UK or Ireland. It is unique as it is always judged by a panel of established poets and it has been described by Sir Andrew Motion as ‘the Prize most poets want to win’.

Previous winners (in chronological order) are: Ciaran Carson, Paul Muldoon , Mark Doty, Les Murray, Don Paterson, Ted Hughes, Hugo Williams, Michael Longley, Anne Carson, Alice Oswald, Don Paterson (for the second time), George Szirtes, Carol Ann Duffy , Seamus Heaney, Sean O’Brien, Jen Hadfield, Philip Gross, Derek Walcott and John Burnside.

The Prize is generously supported by the T S Eliot Estate. 

This year marks the second year of generous three-year support from Aurum, a private investment management firm which manages funds for charities, pension funds, sovereign wealth funds and private individuals, and which supports a range of charities.  

  … ends

For further information please go to

Or contact: Dave Isaac or Chris Holifield at the Poetry Book Society

tel 020 7831 7468 emails, and


Judges’ Biographies

Carol Ann Duffy
Poet Carol Ann Duffy was born in 1955 in Glasgow . Her poetry collections include Standing Female Nude (1985); The Other Country (1990); Mean Time (1993), which won the Whitbread Poetry Award and the Forward Poetry Prize; The World’s Wife (1999); Feminine Gospels (2002); and Rapture (2005), which won the 2005 T S Eliot Prize. Her latest collection, The Bees (2011), was shortlisted for the 2011 Prize. Her children’s poems are collected in New & Collected Poems for Children (2009). Carol Ann Duffy is the Poet Laureate. She lives in Manchester and is Creative Director of the Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University .

Michael Longley

One of Ireland’s foremost contemporary poets, Michael Longley CBE was born in 1939. Longley’s 1991 collection, Gorse Fires, won the Whitbread Poetry Prize. Subsequently, The Weather in Japan (2000) won the Irish Times Literature Prize for Poetry, the Hawthornden Prize and the 2000 T S Eliot Prize. Longley’s recent publications include Snow Water (2004) and Collected Poems (2006). His latest collection, A Hundred Doors (2011) was a PBS Recommendation. In 2001 he was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. Michael Longley is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and he was Ireland Professor of Poetry from 2007 to 2010.

David Morley

An ecologist by background, David Morley’s poetry has won many awards. His most recent poetry collection Enchantment (2010) was a Sunday Telegraph Book of the Year chosen by Jonathan Bate. The Invisible Kings (2007) was a PBS Recommendation and TLS Book of the Year chosen by Les Murray. His next book World’s Eye is due from Carcanet in 2013 followed by his Selected Poems in 2014. A leading international advocate of creative writing, David wrote The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing (2007) and co-edited The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing (2012). He is Professor of Writing at the University of Warwick . His website is

October 06, 2011

Moment When a Poetry Happens

RIP Steve Jobs

September 10, 2010

An Antidote to Anthologising: “Dove Release” Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement

Where the thinking gets done

A number of writers have contacted me about the review of my poetry anthology in the TLS by the poet and jazz musician John Mole; and a number of younger poets and contributors to the anthology have had difficulty seeing the review owing to their not subscribing to the TLS. I was teaching an Arvon Foundation course at The Ted Hughes Centre at Lumb Bank last week and managed to see their subscription issue. I took a copy which appears verbatim somewhere below.

I want to make a comment. It’s interesting to contrast the friendly reception of this unassuming, agenda-free poetry anthology from a small press with the qualified receptions offered by reviewers to recent canon-trouncing anthologies of younger (and not-so-young) poets from the more powerful independent presses. George Ttoouli discusses this balance in Horizon Review here and goes on to contrast Dove Release with a number of anthologies, none of which Dove Release is competing with. It’s a warm and fascinating piece of writing but I don’t quite get why George Ttoouli believes, ‘It’s hard to discuss this book as an anthology, when so much is geared towards making readers focus on the poems.’ In my world - in my book - the focus on poetry is the whole point of an anthology. The model for my anthology, although I wasn’t slavish about it, was The Poet’s Tongue which, as Stephen Burt writes on The London Review of Books blog:

“The grandfather – or perhaps the generous uncle – of such anthologies may be the best of the lot: The Poet’s Tongue, edited by W.H. Auden and John Garrett, saw at least two printings in 1935, and at least one more in the 1940s…The poet and the schoolmaster put together a volume in which, the introduction says, poetry would appear not as ‘a tradition to be preserved and imitated’, but as ‘a human activity, independent of period and unconfined in subject’…It’s in two parts, paginated separately; part one has simpler language, and more narrative, as if intended for younger readers. But that division is almost the only clue that Auden and Garrett intended the book for schools. Selections arrive in alphabetical order by first line (an arrangement The Rattle Bag imitated), with authors’ names left out of the main text (they show up in the table of contents); humour and obsequy, fame and anonymity, prayer and limerick, show up unpredictably, side by side.” More succulent prose on anthologies from Stephen Burt here:

This is what George says in his discussion of recent anthologies in Horizon Review:

“Coming to a different beast entirely, Worple’s recently published Dove Release, chooses a distinct path through these various aspects of anthologising. Ostensibly gathered under the auspices of celebrating “a decade of writing at the University of Warwick”, there’s a celebration of new poets, some of whom, David Morley’s introduction tells us, are in their twenties. There are some established names, a refreshing addition to the range of new poets (listed alphabetically here to mimic the book’s “democratic” order): Jane Holland, Luke Kennard, Glyn Maxwell, Ruth Padel, George Szirtes; and various Warwick staff, including Peter Blegvad and David Morley, jostle with a host of unknowns, or barely-knowns. There’s a spate of Eric Gregory Award recipients: Zoë Brigley, James Brookes, Swithun Cooper, Luke Heeley, Liz Manuel, Michael McKimm and Jon Morley. But there’s an anti-celebrity approach; poets are not named as prize winners and biographical details are absent — even acknowledging where poems might have been published before is foregone in favour of stressing the selected poetry, above all.

“It’s hard, then, to discuss this book as an anthology, when so much is geared towards making readers focus on the poems, but Morley’s introduction is an oddball. He emphasises the specific university environment and the connections each poet has with a course I myself took in 2000, taught by David Morley, called The Practice of Poetry. The recent scientific underpinning of Morley’s approach to teaching poetry is also highlighted: “Meeting scientists, and seeing live science, presented our poets with ideas, characters, and designs. It also gave us new language: the terminology of science is gravid with metaphor and is constantly inventing new terms for describing the stuff of life and the structures and shapes of the universe.”

“Aware of how this might limit interest in the anthology, Morley points out that it “certainly isn’t” a book of science poems. The book’s jacket and blurb attempt to avoid easy pigeonholing, but ultimately this is held back by the context for the collection, which is a shame. The lack of pressure placed on the reader’s expectations is refreshing, the democratic structure doesn’t favour celebrity in any way and so, as a reader, I was primed to find something to enjoy — and there is plenty. But I would say that, I’m in it.”

Just so. And finally to John Mole’s piece for the TLS.

David Morley, editor


New Flights and Voices

184pp. Worple Press Paperback, £10

9788 1 905208 13 5

Purchase from

In his engaging introduction to this anthology mainly by young writers in their twenties with whom he and fellow tutors have worked together on the Practice of Poetry course at Warwick University, David Morley begins with a quotation from Kenneth Koch’s poems addressed “To My Twenties”. This was a time between the twenties and thirties, Koch writes, when “you were midmost / Most lustrous apparently strongest” and there is plenty of light and strength apparent in Dove Release. Plenty of variety, too, both in the poems themselves and the encounters which have inspired them.

Convinced that writing is an act of community and always in search of “open spaces for creative discovery”, Morley has encouraged his young writers to work not only in art galleries and nature reserves (he is himself a former ecologist) but also – and most rewardingly, it would appear – alongside research scientists in a spirit of mutual delight and respect. The scientists were “charmed and challenged” by the poets’ presence, and the poets energized by new language and material which find their way into work which, though sometimes overloaded with the excitement of fresh terminologies, is seldom less than technically accomplished. These terminologies are, as Morley points out, “gravid with metaphor” and thus ready to give birth to poems.

But Dove Release is not just the record of an experiment. The sixty poets, introduced alphabetically and without biographical notes, include several Gregory Award winners and a few of the tutors, among them Glyn Maxwell, Fiona Sampson and George Szirtes. Readers will find their own favourites, but of those which most successfully ingest scientific knowledge I’d pick Charlotte Jones’s “Cuttlefish”. Three scrupulously attentive poems by Emily Hasler compare favourably with the Elizabeth Bishop of “Sandpiper”, Luke Kennard wins a memorable simile prize for describing a friend’s “courteous smile like a weak / Line-break”, and Rebecca Fearnley’s “The Bipolar Bear” lives up to its clever title. In fact, there’s a lot of cleverness and fun, as might be expected from a project in which the poets and their tutors have evidently enjoyed working together.


Times Literary Supplement, 6th August 2010

August 11, 2010

Chat We Won't. Talk We Willl.

Writing about web page

How it sounds'Live Chat' with, me(!), David Morley, Thursday 12th August, 2pm-3:30pm via Warwick Live at The Knowledge Centre.

This week, I'll be hosting a live chat and answering your questions on poetry, art and science, creative writing and publishing.

I'll also give a number of “micro-workshops” and some quick techniques... to assist you in your writing. The Live Chat will take place on Thursday 12th August from 2pm – 3:30pm. Just visit this webpage on Thursday to join the chatroom and take part in the discussion. You’ll need to be an alumnus of Warwick to join in the chat though... Sorry if you're not.

May 04, 2010

'How Successful Writers Maintain Confidence' – Alan Rinzler

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Dream of the poetThis is excellent advice from Alan Rinzler at Forbes Magazine. I'd throw in some old fashioned cold-hearted discipline, an angel, and a room of your own.

Self-confidence is the single most essential ingredient an author needs to succeed, since good writing is never quick or easy. To write well requires energy, discipline and a sense of humor.

The most accomplished and productive writers I work with are able to sustain a level of assurance and optimism. And that's even when they’re feeling blocked, burned out and unappreciated.

There are no universal, cookie-cutter techniques writers can use to keep up their hopes and dreams. Each writer is unique, with an individual temperament, culture and developmental process. But here are some general suggestions all writers can consider to help soldier through periods of doubt.

Stay Connected

Withdrawal and isolation can debilitate and reduce creative energy. Writers can work with other people doing research, brainstorming plot ideas, and building characters, but, ultimately, writing is a solitary occupation, with hours alone facing a blank screen or empty notebook.

Consequently, a conscious effort to reach out is the only way to prevent isolation and loneliness. Maintain contact with other people, loved ones, family, friends and colleagues. You don’t have to ask for help, just engage as much as possible in regular human relationships. Look for people who can make you laugh out loud. Get out of your head, get out of the house, go and talk to another person. You don’t have to be alone. I repeat: You are not alone.

Keep Writing

Even if you don’t love what you’re turning out, keep putting those words on the screen or down on paper, regardless. What may feel like a massive writer’s block may be only the need to pause, or to work out the story on an internal, unconscious level. You can always polish or delete what you’ve written, but sustaining the discipline will be encouraging and ultimately valuable. You will actually build confidence by sticking to the task at hand.

Revive Your Passion

Go back to the source of your motivation, your real reason for writing and the thing you are determined to produce. Whether it’s a novel or narrative non-fiction, a well-argued polemic about something important, a love letter to a lost relationship, an angry response to a perceived hurt, or a desire to understand and make meaning out of your life, be honest about it and renew your devotion to this mission.

Maintain Good Mental Health

Some writers exercise, while others maintain a spiritual practice like meditation or positive visualization. Others devote themselves to a righteous cause, or become passionate about domestic arts like gourmet cooking or building beautiful things with their hands. Many paint or make music to relieve their creative tensions. Some go to therapists, either regularly or on an as-needed drop in basis. Whatever it takes, do it.

Get Editorial Help

The best writers I know use developmental editors. Not family and friends who love you no matter what, not other colleagues who may have a personal agenda, such as flattery or competition, but professionals with proven experience. Writers under contract may already have an editor at the publishing house. Other writers can engage an editor on a freelance basis. Choosing the right editor is crucial, so track record and compatibility are a top priority.


Good writers love and appreciate other good writers. It’s inspiring, not necessarily as a direct literary model, but as a process example and goal achieved. It can be done!

Expect Rejection

Even the best writers have their work sent back as unacceptable, in some cases after acclaim and riches. Bad reviews, a fickle market, unpredictable changes and abandonment from their publishers--it’s a jungle out there!

Get used to it. Agents and editors don’t always behave rationally, and they occasionally say things that just don’t make sense, like “This isn’t a good fit for us.” What does that mean, anyway? Learn to distinguish constructive criticism from glib and thoughtless remarks.

For a reality check, consider the fact that Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected 140 times before a publisher finally took a chance. So take heart!

Be Patient

All evidence and historical example shows us that it takes many years of rewrites and heroic perseverance to endure the creaky, slow, risk-aversive decision-making process of the book business. To get published, it’s essential to have realistic expectations about how long it will take. Think years, not months.

Embrace Irrational Exuberance and Obsessive Compulsions

During the course of writing a book, it’s okay to be a little over-the-top in your focus and devotion to the work. What may seem to others as a bit crazy can actually serve you well. Many writers succumb to an extreme level of behavior that really keeps up their confidence during the hard work.

Then, when it’s done, they relax, wind down, take a vacation and enjoy their time off--at least until they are compelled to start again.

April 29, 2010

China Mieville Wins Arthur C. Clarke Award for Third Time

Here at Warwick we are celebrating our colleague China Mieville who, last night, won the Arthur C. Clarke AwardOur pal for the third time - an unprecedented achievement. Alison Flood of the Guardian writes:

His first venture into crime fiction – albeit with a fantastical edge – has won China Miéville the UK's most prestigious science fiction prize, the Arthur C Clarke award, for an unprecedented third time.

The City and the City is set up as a straightforward crime novel: in the dilapidated city of Beszél in eastern Europe, Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad is trying to solve what initially looks like a routine case. But as he looks deeper into the murder of a mysterious woman, he discovers that she has links to Ul Qoma, a city that exists in the same physical space as Beszél but whose inhabitants studiously ignore any sign of overlap.

The novel won the British Science Fiction Association prize for best novel earlier this month, when BSFA journal editor Niall Harrison predicted it was set to take a slew of further prizes. Miéville pronounced himself "absolutely gobsmacked" and "incredibly honoured" to win the Arthur C Clarke, an award originally established by Clarke himself to help promote science fiction in Britain. "It's very different from most of my other books," said Miéville, who has previously won the Arthur C Clarke with more traditional fantasy novels Perdido Street Station and Iron Council. "It was very much written in an effort to be absolutely faithful to works of crime fiction. Crime readers will denounce a book because it has 'cheated,' and I wanted to write a book that didn't cheat, that was faithful to crime rules and that if you'd never read any fantasy you could pick up."

Miéville triumphed over a shortlist also featuring former winner Gwyneth Jones, American author Kim Stanley Robinson, Adam Roberts, Chris Wooding and Marcel Theroux to take the prize, an engraved bookend and a cheque for £2,010, this evening. "It was particularly difficult for judges to pick a winner this year," said chair of judges Paul Billinger. "China eventually won because of the intricacy of the book and the way the whole of the concept expands from the initial premise into the different types of city. The way that was done was so clearly and cleverly written."

Billinger called The City and the City "superb" and "very different from China's other books – almost more restrained, in a good way. The judges have always been open to any type of book which comes within the realm of science fiction – the crime element doesn't exclude it – so we are really pleased it's won." The novel is also shortlisted for major American science fiction and fantasy awards the Nebulas.

Miéville said that some people had questioned whether The City and the City was really science fiction or fantasy. "I think these debates are silly – genre is a moveable feast, but some people do ask these questions," he said. "What I don't want to do is disavow the fantastic tradition I come from. This is a book from within the fantasy tradition, which hopefully can also be a perfectly faithful crime book – and a good book."

Previous winners of the Arthur C Clarke include Margaret Atwood, who won the inaugural award for The Handmaid's Tale in 1987, Christopher Priest, Geoff Ryman and Richard Morgan.

April 26, 2010

“A broken/ Will in one and in the other a broken heart”: Peter Porter, 1929–2010

The loss of a fine poet.

From The Times today:Peter Porter

Peter Porter held an individual place in both the British and Australian poetry of the past half-century. Like Germaine Greer and Clive James who came to England a decade after him, he was among those Australians who established a reputation in London before being taken seriously in their own country.

From the autodidact outsider and social satirist of the late Fifties and early Sixties, Porter transformed himself into an almost Establishment figure — critic and broadcaster as well as poet — before stepping to one side of British metropolitan literary fashion in the less public pursuits of his mature work. His later career was marked by increasingly frequent visits to Australia, where his reputation continued to grow.

Porter developed the meditative tone that characterised his poems from W. H. Auden’s intellectual allusiveness and Wallace Stevens’s fictive expansiveness, but as he said: “A poet is a fish who has to create his own water.”

His response to the cultural dislocation of the mid-century was not despair but a deeper belief in the continuity of the humanistic tradition. He used collisions between popular and learned culture partly for satirical effect. A sceptical punning humour spotlighted fashionable absurdities. As a critic he famously courted the odium of experimentalists by the contention that poetry is a modest art.

Peter Neville Frederick Porter was born an only child in Brisbane, Queensland, in 1929. His childhood was marked by the death of his mother, Marion, in 1938, when he was 9, and by an unhappy period as a boarder at Toowoomba Grammar School. He immersed himself in music and literature, developing a voracious appetite for European culture.

He worked as a journalist on a Brisbane paper before sailing for England in 1951. On the boat he met the future novelist Jill Neville, and they developed a close relationship while Porter worked at a series of menial jobs. When the relationship ended Porter returned briefly to Australia, coming back to London in 1954.

While working at Bumpus bookshop, he fell in with the work of the poets (Martin Bell, Edward Lucie Smith, Peter Redgrove and others) who, under the chairmanship of Philip Hobsbaum, became known as The Group. Porter soon began publishing and broadcasting poems. He achieved brief notoriety in 1960 when a BBC Third Programme broadcast of his nuclear protest poem Your Attention Please was mistaken for a real nuclear warning. His first three collections were published by John Rolph’s small Scorpion Press, and a selection of his poems was included in the second Penguin Modern Poets series.

His poems were also included in Alfred Alvarez’s influential anthology The New Poetry (1962), which claimed to break with the “gentility principle” in English verse. Porter’s early poems, such as Death in the Pergola Tea Rooms and Annotations of Auschwitz are strikingly of their time: their style a badge of period irreverence, packed with brand names and sharp observations of a contradictory social scene. It is the social tone and the emphasis on observed detail that dominate, but a persistent awareness of death and a sense of self-disgust coexist with, and undercut, the poise of the mocking outsider.

It is not difficult to see an affinity between Porter’s concerns in these poems of the early Sixties and those of his slightly younger contemporary Sylvia Plath. Both were outsiders in a Britain still shadowed by austerity yet on the verge of a social and sexual revolution. Each bore the scars of a childhood riven by the death of a parent.

Porter next gained a job as a copywriter for the advertising agency Notleys, where he worked with the novelist William Trevor and with Gavin Ewart, whose career as a poet Porter was partly responsible for reviving. At Bumpus he had met Jannice Henry, whom he married in 1961, the year he published his first collection of poems, Once Bitten, Twice Bitten, and they had two daughters. When he received what he once described as “the asbestos handshake” from his advertising agency in 1968 he became a freelance writer and broadcaster.

The early 1970s were a high-water mark of Porter’s London literary career. From his 1970 volume, The Last of England, his poetry was published by the Oxford University Press. He wrote columns for the New Statesman and The Times Literary Supplement — where he succeeded Ian Hamilton as poetry and fiction editor in 1973. In the same year he became the regular poetry reviewer of The Observer in succession to both Hamilton and Alvarez, where, he said, “he often felt ashamed that I didn’t have Ian’s conviction that a mediocre poem was an offence in the nostrils of God”. He also broadcast frequently.

Porter was by this time renowned for his fierce erudition. Alan Brownjohn commented on how “he seemed to know everything, not just about literature, but also about music and painting ... talking to Peter was a quick way of finding out how ignorant we really were.”

From the Seventies onwards his work reflected this learning with an allusiveness and a syntactic daring that became part of a continuing debate within his poems about the reliability of language itself. The surface of the poems was continually busy, yet they veered away from easy resolution or coherence.

The poems that Porter wrote after the suicide of his wife in 1974 include some of his most celebrated work. Formal and lucid poems such as An Exequy and An Angel at Blythburgh Church became natural anthology pieces, but Porter explored his memories of their life together in a range of forms and moods, both in The Cost of Seriousness (1978) and the volumes that followed it. The bereavement and the sense of self-blame he inherited from the early loss of his mother and then his wife (“a broken/ Will in one and in the other a broken heart”) provided a poignantly recurring point of reference in his work.

Porter collaborated with the Australian painter Arthur Boyd on four books of poems and illustrations between 1973 and 1988. He had edited a selection of Alexander Pope for Faber in 1971, and he revised The Faber Book of Modern Verse (1982) and edited The Oxford Book of Modern Australian Verse (1996).

Honours began to come his way. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and held honorary doctorates from the universities of Melbourne (1985) and Loughborough (1987). He won the Duff Cooper Prize for his 1983 Collected Poems, the Whitbread Poetry Award for his 1988 volume The Automatic Oracle, the Gold Medal for Australian Literature in 1990 and the Queen’s Gold Medal in 2002.

His 70th birthday in 1999 was marked by an emeritus award from the Australian Government and the publication of a two-volume Collected Poems, 1961-99. A volume of Paeans for Peter Porter also appeared, edited by Anthony Thwaite, and with contributions by Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Wendy Cope, William Trevor and others. Yet not everyone admired his work, Kingsley Amis in particular being sharply dismissive.

Saving from the Wreck, Essays on Poetry, appeared in 2001, and Max is Missing (poems) in the same year. It won the Forward Prize for 2002. It was succeeded by further volumes of verse, Afterburner (2004) and Better than God (2009). He was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in 2004 and appointed a Companion of Literature in 2006.

Porter’s ebullient conversation, natural kindness, curiosity about others and self-mocking humour meant that he was appreciated as a teacher on visiting fellowships at universities in Britain and Australia.

He married Christine Berg, a child psychologist, in 1991. Later poems such as To my Granddaughters Sweeping Spelsbury Church celebrate a hardwon happiness, a self-critical spirit surprised at the unexpectedness of returned love.

Peter Porter, OAM, poet and critic, was born on February 16, 1929. He died on April 23, 2010, aged 81

April 15, 2010

J.K. Rowling: The Single Mother's Manifesto

Writing about web page

From The Times Online, J.K. Rowling writes:

JKRI’ve never voted Tory before, but . . .” Those much parodied posters, with their photogenic subjects and their trite captions, remind me irresistibly of glossy greetings cards. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more general elections have in common with the birthdays of middle life. Both entail a lot of largely unwelcome fuss; both offer unrivalled opportunities for congratulation and spite, and you have seen so many go by that a lot of the excitement has worn off.

Nevertheless, they become more meaningful, more serious. Behind all the bombast and balloons there is the melancholy awareness of more time gone, the tally of ambitions achieved and of opportunities missed.

So here we are again, taking stock of where we are, and of where we would like to be, both as individuals and as a country. Personally, I keep having flashbacks to 1997, and not merely because of the most memorable election result in recent times. In January that year, I was a single parent with a four-year-old daughter, teaching part-time but living mainly on benefits, in a rented flat. Eleven months later, I was a published author who had secured a lucrative publishing deal in the US, and bought my first ever property: a three-bedroom house with a garden.

I had become a single mother when my first marriage split up in 1993. In one devastating stroke, I became a hate figure to a certain section of the press, and a bogeyman to the Tory Government. Peter Lilley, then Secretary of State at the DSS, had recently entertained the Conservative Party conference with a spoof Gilbert and Sullivan number, in which he decried “young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing list”. The Secretary of State for Wales, John Redwood, castigated single-parent families from St Mellons, Cardiff, as “one of the biggest social problems of our day”. (John Redwood has since divorced the mother of his children.) Women like me (for it is a curious fact that lone male parents are generally portrayed as heroes, whereas women left holding the baby are vilified) were, according to popular myth, a prime cause of social breakdown, and in it for all we could get: free money, state-funded accommodation, an easy life.

An easy life. Between 1993 and 1997 I did the job of two parents, qualified and then worked as a secondary school teacher, wrote one and a half novels and did the planning for a further five. For a while, I was clinically depressed. To be told, over and over again, that I was feckless, lazy — even immoral — did not help.

The new Labour landslide marked a cessation in government hostilities towards families like mine. The change in tone was very welcome, but substance is, of course, more important than style. Labour had great ambitions for eradicating child poverty and while it succeeded, initially, in reversing the downward trend that had continued uninterrupted under Tory rule, it has not reached its own targets. There remains much more to be done.

This is not to say that there have not been real innovations to help lone-parent families. First, childcare tax credits were introduced by Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor, which were a meaningful way of addressing the fact that the single biggest obstacle for lone parents returning to work was not innate slothfulness but the near-impossibility of affording adequate childcare.

Then came Sure Start centres, of which there are now more than 3,000 across the UK: service centres where families with children under 5 can receive integrated service and information. Unless you have previously grappled with the separate agencies involved in housing, education and childcare, you might not be able to appreciate what a great innovation these centres are. They link to Jobcentres, offering help to secure employment, and give advice on parenting, childcare, education, specialist services and even health. A National Audit Office memorandum published last January found that the overall effectiveness of 98 per cent of the childcare offered was judged to be “good or outstanding”.

So here we are, in 2010, with what promises to be another memorable election in the offing. Gingerbread (now amalgamated with the National Council for One Parent Families), keen to forestall the mud-slinging of the early Nineties, recently urged Messrs Brown, Cameron and Clegg to sign up to a campaign called Let’s Lose the Labels, which aims to fight negative stereotyping of lone parents. Here are just a few of the facts that sometimes get lost on the way to an easy story, or a glib stump speech: only 13 per cent of single parents are under 25 years old, the average age being 36. Fifty-two per cent live below the breadline and 26 per cent in “non-decent” housing. Single-parent families are more likely than couple families to have a member with a disability, which gives some idea of the strains that cause family break up. In spite of all the obstacles, 56.3 per cent of lone parents are in paid employment.

As there are 1.9 million single-parent votes up for grabs, it ought not to surprise anyone that all three leaders of the main political parties agreed to sign up to Gingerbread’s campaign. For David Cameron, however, this surely involves a difficult straddling act.

Yesterday’s Conservative manifesto makes it clear that the Tories aim for less governmental support for the needy, and more input from the “third sector”: charity. It also reiterates the flagship policy so proudly defended by David Cameron last weekend, that of “sticking up for marriage”. To this end, they promise a half-a-billion pound tax break for lower-income married couples, working out at £150 per annum.

I accept that my friends and I might be atypical. Maybe you know people who would legally bind themselves to another human being, for life, for an extra £150 a year? Perhaps you were contemplating leaving a loveless or abusive marriage, but underwent a change of heart on hearing about a possible £150 tax break? Anything is possible; but somehow, I doubt it. Even Mr Cameron seems to admit that he is offering nothing more than a token gesture when he tells us “it’s not the money, it’s the message”.

Nobody who has ever experienced the reality of poverty could say “it’s not the money, it’s the message”. When your flat has been broken into, and you cannot afford a locksmith, it is the money. When you are two pence short of a tin of baked beans, and your child is hungry, it is the money. When you find yourself contemplating shoplifting to get nappies, it is the money. If Mr Cameron’s only practical advice to women living in poverty, the sole carers of their children, is “get married, and we’ll give you £150”, he reveals himself to be completely ignorant of their true situation.

How many prospective husbands did I ever meet, when I was the single mother of a baby, unable to work, stuck inside my flat, night after night, with barely enough money for life’s necessities? Should I have proposed to the youth who broke in through my kitchen window at 3am? Half a billion pounds, to send a message — would it not be more cost-effective, more personal, to send all the lower-income married people flowers?

Suggestions that Mr Cameron seems oblivious to how poor people actually live, think and behave seem to provoke accusations of class warfare. Let me therefore state, for the record, that I do not think it any more his fault that he spent his adolescence in the white tie and tails of Eton than that I spent the almost identical period in the ghastly brown-and-yellow stylings of Wyedean Comprehensive. I simply want to know that aspiring prime ministers have taken the trouble to educate themselves about the lives of all kinds of Britons, not only the sort that send messages with banknotes.

But wait, some will say. Given that you have long since left single parenthood for marriage and a nuclear family; given that you are now so far from a life dependent on benefits that Private Eye habitually refers to you as Rowlinginnit, why do you care? Surely, nowadays, you are a natural Tory voter?

No, I’m afraid not. The 2010 election campaign, more than any other, has underscored the continuing gulf between Tory values and my own. It is not only that the renewed marginalisation of the single, the divorced and the widowed brings back very bad memories. There has also been the revelation, after ten years of prevarication on the subject, that Lord Ashcroft, deputy chairman of the Conservatives, is non-domiciled for tax purposes.

Now, I never, ever, expected to find myself in a position where I could understand, from personal experience, the choices and temptations open to a man as rich as Lord Ashcroft. The fact remains that the first time I ever met my recently retired accountant, he put it to me point-blank: would I organise my money around my life, or my life around my money? If the latter, it was time to relocate to Ireland, Monaco, or possibly Belize.

I chose to remain a domiciled taxpayer for a couple of reasons. The main one was that I wanted my children to grow up where I grew up, to have proper roots in a culture as old and magnificent as Britain’s; to be citizens, with everything that implies, of a real country, not free-floating ex-pats, living in the limbo of some tax haven and associating only with the children of similarly greedy tax exiles.

A second reason, however, was that I am indebted to the British welfare state; the very one that Mr Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall. I cannot help feeling, therefore, that it would have been contemptible to scarper for the West Indies at the first sniff of a seven-figure royalty cheque. This, if you like, is my notion of patriotism. On the available evidence, I suspect that it is Lord Ashcroft’s idea of being a mug.

Child poverty remains a shameful problem in this country, but it will never be solved by throwing millions of pounds of tax breaks at couples who have no children at all. David Cameron tells us that the Conservatives have changed, that they are no longer the “nasty party”, that he wants the UK to be “one of the most family-friendly nations in Europe”, but I, for one, am not buying it. He has repackaged a policy that made desperate lives worse when his party was last in power, and is trying to sell it as something new. I’ve never voted Tory before ... and they keep on reminding me why.

March 22, 2010

The Battle Between Books

The newcomers

I have run out of shelf space. Even the ‘pretend shelves’ – those Stonehenge temporary structures of plank and brick that end up standing for years – even they are crammed and complaining. You remove a single book and the rest of its companions close the gap with relief: there is no getting back up there. Like a packed tube train, the door slams and the whole shelf slides off – no room, no room.

New arrivals can be shocked; they have to be strong to stay. But old travellers must fear against strong newcomers, especially when they come as an army. Thus, the arrival of the twenty volumes of the mighty Oxford English Dictionary and its two-volumed polyglot lieutenant, The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary led to sharp skirmishes and fall-outs. The Oxfords won, at such cost my local charity bookshops are now almost all abandoned anthologies. The Writers’ Room at Warwick University is home to thinner survivors of this combat – at least two hundred reviewed poetry volumes sought a new home there.

The books say there is no room, but what they mean is there is no space. But there is always space on this desk, or across this bright and flickering desk at which we sit right now, writing and reading to each other. Above and beyond the books I get sent for review, or which I buy for that matter, there are always a snow of extra books which, like overhearing a world outside my mind, find me home. And I think these often surprise more than the books you think you like or were looking for in order to create more books of your own. Here are three which arrived unprompted - and are staying.

Andrew McMillan is studying creative writing a Lancaster and is the co-editor of a good, new magazine called “Cake”. A press that is new to me, Red Squirrel Press, published his first pamphlet last year. Every Salt Advance is a delightfully imaginative debut. The key to it is generosity. He’s a young poet, and sometimes young poets play up the most cynically to gain a reader’s attention. But here, there’s no pose, no urbanity or cringing English irony. He writes feelingly and allusively (a mark of good apprenticeship) and believes in language as a vehicle for play. He believes in language, not in using poetry as a means to a different end than poetry can offer.

Angela France’s Occupation is published by Ragged Raven Poetry, and I read the poems through with interest before leaving the book to work away in my mind for a few weeks. Did it stay in there? Did it possess me? It stayed and unfolded itself. Occupation has a depth to it which shouldn’t seem so surprising except that so few poetry books are possessed by any resonance beyond one reading or hearing. I remember a mental test that Charles Tomlinson applied to poems: does the language of the poem stand up to any sustained pressure? does the poem crumble into lettered debris after one or two readings? Angela France should be better known for making poems that are keenly focussed and wonderfully made. (I would argue that George Ttoouli’s recent first poetry book Static Exile possesses a similarly striking kind of depth and resonance. I am also aware that George and I work together at Warwick but that I’d still think this were he working on the Moon.)

The English Sweats by James Brookes is a really solid and inventive pamphlet, published by Pighog Press. Pighog are a new press but their publishing standards are astounding. Beautifully produced and printed, I’d have liked even if James Brookes had joined George Ttoouli on his Moon mission. For James is a former student of mine so you might regard my words as puffery, but I am also certain that James is going on to be one of our most interesting poets; and every volume of the long dictionary is standing to attention knowing they have another friend on the earth.

March 15, 2010


by John Drinkwater

    I do not think that skies and meadows are
    Moral, or that the fixture of a star
    Comes of a quiet spirit, or that trees

    Have wisdom in their windless silences.

    Yet these are things invested in my mood

    With constancy, and peace, and fortitude,

    That in my troubled season I can cry

    Upon the wide composure of the sky,

    And envy fields, and wish that I might be

    As little daunted as a star or tree.

    March 10, 2010

    Le Poesie Nouveau Est Arrive

    New Kids on the Type Block


    February 22, 2010

    Poetry Cornered

    Writing about web page ttp://

    From an article published 3 December 2009 in the Times Higher Education SupplementAtomic stairway

    Keenly intrigued to read this piece by Neil McBride who is principal lecturer in informatics at the faculty of technology, De Montfort University. Not least because the book "Of Science" (Worple Press)- edited by Andy Brown and myself and cited here - contains a secret message in its structure and choices. Rather like this atomic staircase to the right.

    Article begins:

    Goodbye, sweet Calliope, farewell Erato? In a consumerist world where speed and image rule, poetry's emotional meanings are being lost. Neil McBride muses, partly through verse, on the future of this embattled art

    Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the renowned astrophysicist, hid her love for poetry from the world until she retired, out of fear of what people would think. Only when she was beyond attack could she write and talk about it.

    Of Science, a 2001 anthology of poetry by scientists, co-edited by David Morley, director of the Warwick Writing Programme at the University of Warwick, was published with the writers remaining anonymous. Good, intelligent men and women, clothed in cold rationality, considered it professional suicide to admit to any literary emotions.

    In his lab he's hid Whitsun Weddings behind the sink,

    The latest volume of Fuller sandwiched between reagent catalogues.

    Shakespeare's sonnets encoded in the lab book

    Rossetti pasted to the wall behind the periodic table.

    Amongst the chaotic dishes and tubes, there cannot be anything poetic at all

    Rhythm and language must be neutralised, the third person

    Is the wash of objectivity, the veneer of scientific discipline:

    Verse is hidden at the back of a drawer covered with Millipore.

    The poets of science have no names, clothed in the shame

    Of irrationality, the atrocity of the literary mind is unspoken

    Words must be disguised, sanitised. Any evidence of life

    Outside the rational, the objective, must be denied.

    The observatory is cold, dark, starless. Pulsars blip

    The steady drip, drip of numbers stripped of spirit

    The poetry of the stars is a dark matter

    Planets are mathematical objects swimming in an emotional vacuum.

    Do not suggest that patterns, laws, and the aesthetics of structure

    Hold anything of the spirit. Don't speak poetry to me:

    We silence our critics, mute emotions, declare ourselves "observers".

    There is no soul, nothing but a rotting body of clockwork chemicals.

    Perhaps the power of poetry is its downfall. It addresses uncertainty. It questions, it leaves frayed edges and loose wires. It draws out the hidden, the spiritual, the underlying rhythms of life that we swamp with information, noise and news channels. We reject poetry because we shun its emotional engagement.

    In the eyes of the general public, poetry is reduced to ditties. On BBC Radio 4, no less, poet and publisher Felix Dennis commented on swine flu in the form of a nursery rhyme. The only established poet to get anywhere near the dizzy heights of WH Smith's top 100 bestsellers is Pam Ayres.

    As for the established poets, only Seamus Heaney makes it on to the coffee table, displayed with picture books of coral reefs and unread books on quantum physics. The rest are nowhere to be seen. Hiding behind the prizes - T.S. Eliot, Forward, Costa - their work is held to the camera as yet another "slim volume". Their message is limited to a narrow band of aficionados, and their sales are held up by the mercenary study of the likes of Gillian Clarke, Simon Armitage and the ubiquitous Heaney in A-level English.

    Nobody would deny the genius of poets such as Sean O'Brien, Paul Muldoon and Ruth Padel, but the level of academic achievement needed to appreciate them reaches doctoral standards. Even O'Brien's jokes in The Drowned Book (2007) require a good grounding in English literature: "The lady is a trope" raises laughs in English lit classes, but not from the uneducated.

    So what are we to do? Do we leave poetry to the literary clique, with the occasional escape like a spurt from a sleeping volcano? Do we descend to the level of limerick and nursery rhyme? Do we leave the hard, thankless task of connecting people with poetry to the laureates, to the efforts of Andrew Motion through the Poetry Archive, or to the work of Carol Ann Duffy? Or do we look for a middle way that connects at one level and challenges at another?

    This is an age-old concern, what Padel calls the "2,000-year-old problem": the battle between obscurity and popularity, between depth and superficiality; the flight to comfort and familiarity, the story with the happy ending; the light ditty, entertaining for a moment and then forgotten. Poetry needs to challenge, to connect with deep emotions - to threaten, even. But if there is no hook, no connection with readers' world view to what Jurgen Habermas calls their "lifeworld", poems remain sterile and nobody will get anywhere.

    For Motion, part of the problem is dissemination. Poets aren't on the news, in soap operas or featured in the pages of OK!, Heat or TV Times. They aren't connecting with social networks; they don't have a high profile in the marketplace.

    The efforts of the BBC's recent "Poetry Season" must help, but even then it was the intellectual heavyweights, academics such as Simon Schama, who were hauled on to BBC Two and BBC Four while the rest of the population watched Britain's Got Talent five nights a week.

    On Newsnight, Armitage said that poetry and war are specialised. Afghanistan is hidden away and sanitised: distant, foreign, somewhat incomprehensible, with a language of its own and an obscure purpose, important but far removed from domestic economic realities. And what is an insurgent, anyway?

    And there is quite a parallel with information and communications technology (ICT) and computing. They are seen as hard, boring, for a clique of aficionados and geeks, not to be pursued. There is a social and perceptual barrier to overcome. The social importance of ICT and poetry, the excitement of engagement, the novelty, their range of ideas and their potential for the enrichment of life are ignored. And yet poetry is at the heart of our lives. The Bible, the Koran and the Bhagavadgita are full of poetry. The great myths and stories, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey, are framed in poetic terms. Has poetry been hijacked by academics who compete with one another to be the most obscure? Is it merely an academic feat of snobbery left out to cure in the sun?

    There was no snobbery in William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson. Shakespeare's audience was no academic clique. The unwashed - shouting, drinking, farting, walking in and out - turned up in their droves to the Globe. The political classes engaged with his material and showed it off to the diplomats, yet Shakespeare did not talk down to the masses, nor demand the purity of language and the preservation of its past. He wrote to entertain, but he wove together meaning and language on many levels. He took words out of people's mouths, transformed them and pitched them back.

    Much of Shakespeare's work beyond the stories and bawdy jokes must have gone straight over the heads of people in the audience, but they went away with new cadences and words ringing in their ears.

    So the Bard engaged with the people and yet pulled them into new realms. By doing so, he evolved language and struck emotional connections.

    Perhaps it is the scaffold of his dramatic storytelling, poetic relationships and their relentless narrative drive that provides the framework for deep emotion and deep language. Or perhaps Shakespeare's audience was more attuned to life, death and strong emotions. Perhaps it's time for a return to the ballad, to rooting poetry in strong storylines, to riding on the back of Hollywood. Can there be poetry in the language of the screen, in cuts, in short and long shots, in tight dialogue?

    Poetry connects with life and emotion and existence and the reasons for living. Perhaps today's superficiality has suffocated it. The reduction of life to money and consumerism, love to sex and orgasms, and death to sanitised crematoriums and renditions of My Way muffles the spiritual, deflects reflection and reduces debate to a social faux pas.

    We have found meaning, desire and creativity in the shopping mall rather than the book, the word, the verse. My desires are heightened by neon lights, coffee houses, designer shops and John Lewis. Inner meaning and spirituality are lost amid the consumerism, accumulation and buying that constitutes the new religion. Is it any wonder that poetry is banished to the classroom when the solution to the economic crisis is seen to be more rampant consumerism? Because poetry demands spiritual connection, its currency is all but exhausted.

    My first encounter with poetry was through Ted Hughes' 1960s work Poetry in the Making, a book for children that challenges them to think, to imagine. The images conjured up by his poems The Thought Fox and Pike challenged me to imagine and write my own descriptions of the natural world. With the spoken word, with radio, with written text, there is a demand for engagement. We must imagine. The work of creating the image, of imagining, must be done by the audience. Even in plays, the limited stage design and props are merely scaffolding for the audience to build an imaginative world. But our reliance on the moving image makes us passive recipients of someone else's imagination. As our imaginative muscles weaken, reading poetry becomes harder and harder work.

    If poetry requires thought and reflection, a pause, staying with an image or a line of inquiry instead of moving on to the next stimulus, how can it survive in a world where instant gratification is the norm, where we switch off if the next fix, shock or flash doesn't appear on the screen? We will not linger long enough with one image, one thought, one sentence for the picture to come into focus.

    Are we to be defeated by superficial engagement with life, consumerism, the atrophy of imagination and attention? Are we to paint over the walls with rationalism?

    Perhaps poetry is too slow. The late Mick Imlah's The Lost Leader (2008) took 25 years to appear. Where was the urgency, the currency? The gestation period, the writing and rewriting, leaves poetry discarded, stillborn as life and media press on. Perhaps poets should write quickly, producing to express the moment, realising that while today's poem may not (for hygiene reasons) wrap fish and chips, it will quickly end up in the recycling box or lining the guinea-pig cage.

    The poetry of the laureate is remaindered;

    A bargain amongst the romances and obscure biographies.

    The emotions expressed are put out to recycle;

    The sharp insights bleached by sun, browned by age.

    I might have written my heart out, explored tender wounds;

    But what remains is rendered basic,

    Unfit for fish and chips and buried

    In the detritus of a consumed life.

    Those who find it hidden amongst the Wordsworth and Coleridge

    Wonder if I ever lived or breathed or felt

    The tenderness of love, the frustration of queues

    The emptiness of crowds.

    This poetry captures an emotion,

    Projects my hologram hung briefly in the air,

    An image from the past, I reach out and call

    Before dissolving into the white steel wall.

    If hardly any word will be absorbed,

    If whole sermons are reduced to a single image,

    If hidden words remain ignored, lost in flight,

    The fleeting image must be written light.

    The whole poem executed by a pointillist's brush,

    Leaves some impression after the detail fades

    A whole interpretation requires a thousand words

    And an image picked out at a distance.

    I might as well write for Heat and Hello

    Endless words paraded by without recognition.

    You will only pick out the familiar phrase

    The comforting message heard too often.

    Or that which is so horrific, the image will stay

    The deflowered maiden, hands sliced, tongue stopped

    The shocking, the revolting, when the ground gives way

    And the landmarks are left behind.

    You may be drawn in by the simple verse, the easy idea

    A quick point, a joke, a simple message.

    Beyond the blue-mirrored shallows

    A deeper message awaits.

    January 22, 2010

    Michael Rosen to Chair Judging Panel for Warwick Prize for Writing

    Writing about web page

    Michael Rosen, the award-winning writer and former Children’s Laureate was announcedRosen yesterday as Chair of the judges for the 2011 Warwick Prize for Writing. The £50,000 Prize, run by the University of Warwick, was launched in 2008 and is awarded once every two years. Unique in its scope, it stands apart from other literary prizes as an international cross-disciplinary biennial award open to substantial pieces of writing in the English language, in any genre or form.

    The theme changes with each prize, and the 2011 theme is ‘Colour’. Submissions for the 2011 Prize are now open, and all University of Warwick students and its staff– from porters to professors– are invited to make a nomination by 7 May 2010. The Prize aims to identity excellence and innovation in new writing, and help define where writing might be going: what new shapes and forms it may take and even through what media it might be conducted.

    Michael Rosen comments:

    "This is a prize that matches people's reading habits: most of us read across genres, hopping from fiction to journalism to history to biography. I'm guessing that one of the challenges in judging this will be comparing books that are usually regarded as too unlike to be compared. We'll have to raise our game to cope with that, I think, and that's something I'm looking forward to immensely.” 

    Michael Rosen is a writer, broadcaster, performer and Visiting Professor of Children’s Literature at Birkbeck, University of London. He was the Children’s Laureate 2007 – 2009 and has been writing books for children since 1975. He has presented many radio shows and occasional TV programmes, and is the current presenter of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Word of Mouth’.

    A longlist of 15 to 20 titles will be announced in October 2010 followed by a shortlist of six titles in January 2011, and the winner will be announced in February 2011. Naomi Klein was announced as the inaugural winner of the Prize in February 2009, for her book The Shock Doctrine (Penguin). On winning the award, Klein said:

    “At a time when the news out of the publishing industry is usually so bleak, it’s thrilling to be part of a bold new prize supporting writing, especially alongside such an exciting array of other books.”

    Professor Jeremy Treglown, Director of the Warwick Prize for Writing, comments:

    “The Prize brings together students and staff in debates about current work across all disciplines and genres. It adds a thrilling dimension to our teaching.”

    To find out more visit

    January 19, 2010

    'So obviously a book': Philip Gross Wins the Eliot

    Philip Gross, whose poetry collection The Water Table has won him the TS Eliot prize.

    A university professor's detailed and lyrical meditations on the ever-changing waters of the Severn estuary tonight won him the UK's most lucrative poetry prize against tough opposition.

    Philip Gross is a well established poet but far from being a household name. He was named winner of the 2009 TS Eliot prize at a ceremony in London, beating competition from his better-known peers such as Alice Oswald, Sharon Olds and Christopher Reid.

    Gross, professor of creative writing at the University of Glamorgan, won the prize for The Water Table – a themed collection that is metaphysical and political and religious, but has at its heart the subject of water.

    Simon Armitage, who chaired the panel of three poets – the others were Colette Bryce and Penelope Shuttle – that chose the winner, said he hoped the win would introduce people to a new voice in contemporary poetry.

    He said The Water Table stood out because it was not merely a collection of poems but also "so obviously a book".

    Armitage added: "It is so concentrated and keen-eyed and patient. The poems have a beauty and a craft to the writing and it's hard to imagine how he kept it up over 64 pages."

    Gross's collection had an unintended topicality to it when it was published last November, with news headlines telling stories of flooding in Cumbria. The dangers of water are explored in the collection but his poems also address subjects such as climate change, the environment, the human race's fragile place in the planet and also what constitutes art.

    There are also poems about the more mundane human experience, such as arguing in an Ikea car park.

    "There are big concerns throughout the book and he writes with real lyrical confidence," said Armitage.

    He said the judging had been hard work, almost bewildering when they were going through the original 98 collections submitted for the prize. It was, he said, a strong, wider-ranging shortlist which reminded you "what an extraordinary thing the English language is".

    The TS Eliot prize is, according to Armitage, the major poetry prize recognising an art form that does not usually make people fortunes. The organisers have now made it the most lucrative poetry prize by raising the winner's pot to £15,000, from £10,000. That money is donated by TS Eliot's widow, Valerie Eliot, who presented the prize .

    The Water Table is Gross's sixth book of poems published by the Northumberland-based publisher Bloodaxe and he has also written 10 novels for young people. While well established, it is fair to say that Gross is not well known generally and the win, at a stroke, substantially raises his profile.

    He follows in the footsteps of former winners such as Ted Hughes for Love Letters, Carol Ann Duffy for Rapture and Seamus Heaney for District and Circle.

    This year's 10-strong shortlist probably raised more eyebrows because of the poets not on it – there was no Andrew Motion or Peter Porter, nor Don Paterson, who won the 2009 Forward prize.

    There were, though, two former TS Eliot winners in the shape of George Szirtes, for The Burning of the Books and Other Poems; and Hugo Williams, nominated for West End Final. The other shortlisted poets were Christopher Reid – winner of the Costa poetry prize and a strong contender, in many eyes, for the overall Costa prize – Sharon Olds, Alice Oswald, Jayne Draycott, Fred D'Aguiar, Sinéad Morrissey, and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin.

    from The Guardian website

    December 10, 2009

    Geoffrey Moorhouse

    Writing about web page

    Geoffrey Moorhouse

    Geoffrey Moorhouse, who has died aged 77, was a Guardian journalist of deep integrity who moved out of daily newspapers to write books on a variety of themes, most often invoking the human spirit. One book in particular, The Fearful Void (1974), is remembered some 35 years later in revealing in its author, as one critic put it, a sublime madness.

    Aged 40, without previous experience of the desert, or of camels, how to navigate or local languages, he decided to attempt the first solo west-to-east crossing of the Sahara, some 3,600 miles. His was not a journey simply to conquer a physical barrier, but more a voyage of self-discovery: he wished to come to terms with his own fears about life. Cross the Sahara from the Atlantic to the Nile, he felt, and he could do anything.

    After five months and some appalling hardships – not least the death of three camels, the dishonesty of companions (he found that he could not travel alone), dysentery that seemed never-ending, feet that were forever blistered, food ghastly to his western tastes – he gave up the struggle, still 2,000 miles from his destination. But in many an interview, he said he now understood himself better, even in failure. His account, although not pleasant reading, was a success on both sides of the Atlantic, and in Britain a bestseller, which he greeted with a wry comment about almost having to die before readers took an interest.

    This was his sixth book, and more than 20 more would follow. As a reporter, Moorhouse had proved himself a generalist who acquired knowledge, as he once confessed to me, as "a jack of all trades". His books showed an eclecticism in his nature but were never less than expert in their research and writing.

    Born in Bolton, Lancashire (his surname was that of his stepfather), he was educated at Bury grammar school. He once recollected how much he learned at school about composition, but later made what he called his "great discovery through Orwell", that "labouring to develop a distinctive style was a fruitless exercise". He did his national service in the Royal Navy before joining the Bolton Evening News. After two years, and aged 23, he left for New Zealand. He not only worked on newspapers there, but also met his first wife, Jan. He brought her back to England in 1957 and for a few months worked in London for the News Chronicle, by then in decline. In 1958 he moved to the Manchester Guardian.

    Finding himself drawn to church affairs as a reporter – he was, he said, "pickled" in the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version of the Bible – he wrote Against All Reason (1969), a highly praised investigation of monastic life. He was also enthralled by architecture and was with the historian Nikolaus Pevsner when he scrutinised the very last entry for his Buildings of England, Butterfield's parsonage at Sheen, Surrey. Later, Moorhouse's inquisitiveness led him to write about missionaries and diplomats, as well as lobster fishermen off the New England coast.

    At the Guardian, he became chief features writer in 1963, a post he held until he quit in 1970 for full-time book writing. In 1968, he took his turn covering the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, where he used his knowledge of trains to gain a modest scoop. Frustrated at being one of 500 foreign correspondents held at bay at Košice, some 10 miles from where the Russians were trying to browbeat the Czech leader, Alexander Dubcek, at Cierna, it occurred to him that, as the meeting was taking place at the town's railway institute, there must also be a railway line. The next morning he rose early and circumvented the security cordon by catching a workmen's train, bound for Cierna. Although he was discovered soon after arrival and returned to Košice, Moorhouse was able to file 800 self-deprecating words of his experience for the next morning's paper.

    Four of his books were based on the Indian sub-continent. The first, Calcutta (1971), remains a classic and led him to write two other city books, New York (1988) and Sydney (1999) – his metropolitan trilogy, as he called them. In the early 1980s, he travelled in Pakistan to its border with Afghanistan and the result, To the Frontier (1984), won him the Thomas Cook travel book award. It was, though, originally suppressed in Pakistan by the regime of General Zia on the grounds that it was anti-Islamic.

    He also wrote knowledgably about two sports – cricket and rugby league. His love of cricket (he followed Lancashire all his life) led him to write The Best Loved Game (1979), which won him the Cricket Society award, and, in 1983, Lord's, a study of the home of cricket, particularly the MCC. Moorhouse's volume of essays about rugby league (he supported Wigan), At the George (1989), led him to be made the game's official historian for its centenary in 1997.

    As he grew older and travelled less – and having survived a near-fatal heart attack – he turned to history, working from his home in Gayle, a village in Wensleydale, North Yorkshire. Hell's Foundations (1992) was about the effect that the Gallipoli campaign of the first world war had on the Lancashire town of Bury, whose young men formed the bulk of the 5th battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers and failed to return. He followed it with three books of Tudor history: The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002), on the popular uprising that almost toppled Henry VIII; Great Harry's Navy (2005), concentrating on the origins of the Royal Navy; and The Last Office (2008), which told of the dissolution of the monasteries through the example of Durham. The praise it received particularly pleased him, as that book brought together many of his life's interests.

    That year, a novel by the New Zealand writer Janet Frame – Towards Another Summer – was published posthumously. Moorhouse and his first wife, who had given hospitality to Frame in the early 1960s, appear in the novel. Moorhouse thought the portrait of his wife excellent, but hoped he wasn't "as plonkingly earnest" as Frame had drawn him.

    With Jan, he had two sons and two daughters. The younger daughter, Brigie, died of cancer in 1981. Jan was by then married to another Guardian man, Geoffrey Taylor. Moorhouse married again twice, but each marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his partner, Susan Bassnett, his daughter, Jane, and sons Andrew and Michael.

    Peter Preston writes: There were two great feature writers on the staff when I became features editor of the Guardian four decades ago. One was Terry Coleman, master of the full dress interview. The other was Geoffrey. And he was special, too.

    Geoffrey was quiet, brooding, very northern, always fascinated by time and place, as well as surface events. He was a reporter who delved and pondered, getting the facts right, making sure that the slices of life he portrayed were true. He believed in people and making their lives available for a broader audience. He had a quizzical eye and a gentle, reflective sense of humour. And, whether evoking a street market in Blackburn or Bologna, he was always detailed.

    It was probably inevitable, as his own life moved on, that he would find the role of author-reporter more fulfilling than that of feature writer on demand, given the latter's requirement of hours rather than months to turn a rich idea around. Moving on was a great career move. But the Geoffrey I shall always remember, wry, precise, in no sense overbearing, was and remained a great reporter with the most precious gift a reporter can possess: to be able to write as well as he can observe, to describe what he sees in a way that makes it memorable.

    WL Webb writes: Geoffrey reminded me recently that I had given him his first byline in the Guardian – a sketch of the kind once known as a "back-pager", about a stroppy curate getting on the wrong side of his Lancashire bell-ringers – and generally encouraged him in the late 1950s to push on and become one of the paper's stars.

    We spent much time together in 1968, covering the Prague Spring and taking turns to guard jealously from other desperate reporters an ancient teleprinter in a dingy hotel that needed much coaxing to send our copy out. Geoffrey's concentration was ferocious. Once, when I tried to interrupt him in full spate to explain some Czech speech that had just changed the story, he took a wild swing at me, as I struggled to stop him typing away.

    The same restless energies drove him on his solo slog across the Sahara and through all his other formidably researched and experienced books, until he came to rest in the Wensleydale he loved and celebrated so warmly in his north country pastorals in the Oldie.

    • Geoffrey Moorhouse, writer, born 29 November 1931; died 26 November 2009

    December 02, 2009

    "The New Yorker" Asks the Question: Should Creative Writing Be Taught?

    Writing about web page

    New Yorker! Why Do You Not Love My Book?

    Show or Tell

    Should creative writing be taught?

    by Louis Menand June 8, 2009

    Creative-writing programs are designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem. The fruit of the theory is the writing workshop, a combination of ritual scarring and twelve-on-one group therapy where aspiring writers offer their views of the efforts of other aspiring writers. People who take creative-writing workshops get course credit and can, ultimately, receive an academic degree in the subject; but a workshop is not a course in the normal sense—a scene of instruction in which some body of knowledge is transmitted by means of a curricular script. The workshop is a process, an unscripted performance space, a regime for forcing people to do two things that are fundamentally contrary to human nature: actually write stuff (as opposed to planning to write stuff very, very soon), and then sit there while strangers tear it apart. There is one person in the room, the instructor, who has (usually) published a poem. But workshop protocol requires the instructor to shepherd the discussion, not to lead it, and in any case the instructor is either a product of the same process—a person with an academic degree in creative writing—or a successful writer who has had no training as a teacher of anything, and who is probably grimly or jovially skeptical of the premise on which the whole enterprise is based: that creative writing is something that can be taught.

    This skepticism is widely shared, and one way for creative-writing programs to handle it is simply to concede the point. The University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop is the most renowned creative-writing program in the world. Sixteen Pulitzer Prize winners and three recent Poet Laureates are graduates of the program. But the school’s official position is that the school had nothing to do with it. “The fact that the Workshop can claim as alumni nationally and internationally prominent poets, novelists, and short story writers is, we believe, more the result of what they brought here than of what they gained from us,” the Iowa Web site explains. Iowa merely admits people who are really good at writing; it puts them up for two years; and then, like the Wizard of Oz, it gives them a diploma. “We continue to look for the most promising talent in the country,” the school says, “in our conviction that writing cannot be taught but that writers can be encouraged.”

    “A nice conviction if you can afford it” might be the response of faculty working in less prestigious programs, and not everyone who teaches creative writing agrees about the irrelevance of the job. Some writers do seem to make it a matter of principle to bite the hand that writes the checks. Allen Tate, the poet and critic, complained that “the academically certified Creative Writer goes out to teach Creative Writing, and produces other Creative Writers who are not writers, but who produce still other Creative Writers who are not writers.” Tate ran the creative-writing program at Princeton, where John Berryman was a colleague. Kay Boyle once published a piece arguing that “all creative-writing programs ought to be abolished by law.” She taught creative writing for sixteen years at San Francisco State.

    Other writers, though, are very much with the program. John Barth taught for twenty-two years in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, one of the oldest and most luminous programs in the country. In 1985, he published an article in the Times Book Review entitled “Writing: Can It Be Taught?,” to which his answer was that it emphatically can, mainly on the ground that it so emphatically is. (He added the standard “genius” exception: “Not even in America can one major in Towering Literary Artistry.”)

    A few writing instructors have changed their minds. When Barth wrote his piece for the Times, he might have been recalling a speech given three years earlier by one of the leading figures in the field, R. V. Cassill. Verlin Cassill was a novelist and short-story writer who graduated from Iowa in 1939 and returned after the war to get an M.A. and to teach in the Writers’ Workshop. One of his students was Margaret Walker, an African-American, who was the author of “Jubilee” (1966)—the first of the so-called neo-slave narratives, of which the most famous is Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” (“Jubilee” was Walker’s Ph.D. thesis; for the project, Cassill made her read Henry James, who, in those days, was considered a universal “writer’s writer,” even for a woman writing a novel about slavery and Reconstruction.) Cassill wrote a standard textbook, “Writing Fiction”; he was the editor of “The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction,” a position of power in the field; and, from 1966 until his retirement, in 1983, he taught creative writing at Brown, another program with a distinguished history. In 1967, shortly after arriving at Brown and just at the start of a boom in university-based creative-writing programs, he founded the Associated Writing Programs, the professional association of academic creative writers.

    But at a convention in Boston on the fifteenth anniversary of the A.W.P. Cassill stunned the membership by suggesting that the organization should be disbanded. He thought that writers had become complicit in the academic logrolling and gamesmanship of publish-or-perish: using other people’s money—grants from their universities and from arts agencies—they devised ways to get their own and one another’s work into print, and then converted those publications into salary increments (which is apparently how Cassill thought that most professors operate). They wrote poems to get raises. The academic system was corrupting, and it was time for the writers to get out. “We are now at the point where writing programs are poisoning, and in turn we are being poisoned by, departments and institutions on which we have fastened them,” he said. The speech got attention, but the A.W.P. did not disband. It eventually renamed itself the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and it now has more than twenty-five thousand members. Around the time that Cassill delivered his renunciation, there were seventy-nine degree programs in creative writing in the United States. Today, there are eight hundred and twenty-two. Thirty-seven of these award the Ph.D.

    Mark McGurl doesn’t mention Cassill’s speech in his book about creative-writing programs and American fiction, “The Program Era” (Harvard; $35), but it fits his argument perfectly. The argument is that teaching creative writing should always be a scandal, since it’s a scandal that suits everyone. It allows people in creative-writing departments to feel that, unlike their colleagues in the traditional academic disciplines, they are not cogs in a knowledge machine; and it allows the university to regard itself as what McGurl calls a “difference engine,” devoted to producing original people as well as original research. He points out that teachers in creative-writing programs were asking “Can it be taught?” right from the start, but that virtually no one has ever tried to lay down rules for what should go on in the classroom. This is because not having an answer to the “Can it be taught?” question—keeping alive the belief that all this training and socialization never really touches the heart of the imaginative process—is what marks creative-writing programs as “creative.” Academic creative-writing programs are, as McGurl puts it, examples of “the institutionalization of anti-institutionality.” That’s why institutions love them. They are the outside contained on the inside.

    Still, the creative-writing program, unsystematic or even anti-system as it might believe itself to be, is a system. People go in at one end and they come out the other, bearing (like the Scarecrow) a piece of paper with a Latin inscription, but also bearing (unlike the Scarecrow) the impress of an institutional experience. The nature of that experience mutates as the folk wisdom of the workshop mutates—from “Show, don’t tell,” which was the mantra in the nineteen-forties and fifties, to the effectively opposite mantra “Find your voice,” which took over in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. McGurl suggests that these mantras encode shifting patterns of cultural assumptions—about identity, about work, about gender and class, and, of course, about what counts as good writing—and that they have had a big effect on the stories and novels that American writers have produced. “The rise of the creative-writing program,” he says, “stands as the most important event in postwar American literary history.”

    McGurl’s book is not a history of creative-writing programs. It’s a history of twentieth-century fiction, in which the work of American writers from Thomas Wolfe to Bharati Mukherjee is read as reflections of, and reflections on, the educational system through which so many writers now pass. (McGurl doesn’t deal with poetry.) As McGurl points out, the university is where most serious fiction writers have been produced since the Second World War. It has also been the place where most serious fiction readers are produced: they are taught how to read in departments of literature. McGurl’s claim is simple: given that most of the fiction that Americans write and read is processed through the higher-education system, we ought to pay some attention to the way the system affects the outcome.

    This may sound like a formula for debunking, but it’s not. “The Program Era” is an impressive and imaginative book. It does three things unusually well. First, it interprets works of fiction as what philosophers of language call illocutionary acts. The meaning of one of Raymond Carver’s stories is not only what the story says; it’s also the way the story says it. The form of a Carver short story—ostentatiously brief, emotionally hyper-defended—expresses something. McGurl thinks that the style represents the “aestheticization of shame, a mode of self-retraction.” Literary minimalism like Carver’s—McGurl calls it “lower-middle-class modernism”—is a means of reducing the risk of embarrassing oneself, and is one way that students from working-class backgrounds, like Carver (he was from Oregon, where his father was a sawmill worker), deal with the highbrow world of the academy.

    Rather ingeniously, McGurl reads the work of Carver’s exact contemporary Joyce Carol Oates as an expression of the same class-based self-consciousness. (He notes that Carver once called Oates the most important writer of his generation.) Oates is a prolific practitioner of what McGurl calls “maximalist” fiction: it has been said that, at one point in her career, she wrote forty pages of fiction every day, or about a quarter of what would constitute an entire book for Carver. But McGurl thinks that maximalism, too, is “a way of shielding oneself with words.” The two styles are methods of self-protection and, at the same time, forms of self-assertion: the minimalist writer puts his craft on display, the maximalist his facility.

    Carver and Oates are both program products. Oates is from a poor family—she once described herself as “of peasant stock”—in upstate New York. She came out of the undergraduate creative-writing program at Syracuse, where she studied with Donald Dike, and she has spent most of her career teaching at Princeton, where Morrison, until her recent retirement, was also on the faculty. In Carver’s case, the career constitutes a virtual tour d’horizon of the creative-writing scene. Carver started as a correspondence student in an outfit known as the Palmer Institute of Authorship. He took classes at Chico State, in California, with the novelist John Gardner; at Humboldt State College, with the short-story writer Richard Cortez Day; at Sacramento State College, with the poet Dennis Schmitz; and at Stanford, where he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow; and he taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with John Cheever. His second marriage was to another creative-writing professional, the poet Tess Gallagher, and he ended up as a professor at Oates’s alma mater, Syracuse, where Jay McInerney was his student. The beat goes on—McGurl’s point.

    A second thing that “The Program Era” does well, and sometimes entertainingly, is to treat the world of creative writing as an ant farm, in which the writer-ants go about busily executing the tasks they have been programmed for. Writing is a technology, after all, and there is a sense in which human beings who write can be thought of as writing machines. They get tooled in certain ways, and the creative-writing program is a means of tooling. But McGurl treats creative writing as an ant farm where the ants are extremely interesting. He never reduces writers to unthinking products of a system. They are thinking products of a system. After all, few activities make people more self-conscious than participating in a writing workshop. Reflecting on yourself—your experience, your “voice,” your background, your talent or lack of it—is what writing workshops make people do.

    McGurl thinks that this habit of self-observation is not restricted to writing programs. He thinks that we’re all highly self-conscious ants, because that’s what it means to be a modern person. Constant self-assessment and self-reflection are part of our program. (McGurl uses the term “reflexive modernity.” There is a lot of critical techno-speak in “The Program Era,” it’s true. There are also flow charts and the like, diagrams suited to systems analysis. If you don’t enjoy this sort of thing, you will not get very far into the book. It’s worth learning to enjoy, though.)

    So the fiction that comes out of creative-writing programs may appeal to readers because it rehearses topics—“Who am I?” issues—that are already part of their inner lives. And contemporary fiction does have many readers. McGurl argues that, far from homogenizing literature or turning it into an academic exercise, creative-writing programs have been a success on purely literary grounds. “There has been a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature in the postwar period,” he says, and he offers the same proof that Barth offered in his Times article: there is more good fiction out there than anyone has time to read. The system must be doing something right.

    The third accomplishment of “The Program Era” is almost inadvertent. Changes in creative-writing programs are influenced by changes in two related bodies of thought, both of which try to answer the question “How can we make people more productive and more creative?” These are the philosophy of education and management theory. Creative-writing courses follow naturally from the “learning by doing” theories of progressive education: they add practical, hands-on experience to traditional book learning. And, as McGurl suggests, presenting a story in a writing workshop is a little like making a business presentation in a corporate workplace. Such a presentation is, on some level, what he calls “a presentation of individual excellence,” a means by which we observe and test ourselves. It helps us measure how we’re doing in the human race.

    The unexpected result of combining a history of creative fiction writing with a history of education and management theory is a kind of slide show of postwar American life. “The Program Era” evokes a sense of how life felt in the nineteen-sixties, when Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters took their bus trip (a writers’ workshop on the road), and a sense of how life felt in the nineteen-seventies, when Carver was writing his bleak little stories. And this helps McGurl to make a larger point, which is that university creative-writing programs don’t isolate writers from the world. On the contrary, university creative-writing courses situate writers in the world that most of their readers inhabit—the world of mass higher education and the white-collar workplace. Sticking writers in a garret would isolate them. Putting them in the ivory tower puts them in touch with real life.

    Is the rise of the creative-writing workshop, as McGurl claims, “the most important event in postwar American literary history”? Creative-writing courses did not suddenly spring into being in 1945. A course called Verse Making was available at Iowa in 1897, and from 1906 to 1925 George Pierce Baker taught a drama workshop at Harvard, the first graduate writing course in the country; Thomas Wolfe took it. The term (and the concept) “creative writing” dates from the nineteen-twenties, which is when Middlebury started the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, where Robert Frost served as the world’s first writer-in-residence. In 1936, Iowa launched the Writers’ Workshop—officially, the Program in Creative Writing—under the direction of Wilbur Schramm, and began awarding the first M.F.A.s. In 1941, Schramm was replaced by Paul Engle, a prodigious creative-writing proselytizer and cultural Cold Warrior, who made Iowa into a global power in the field. Engle eventually brought writers from seventy countries to study at Iowa.

    There was a surge in creative-writing degree programs after the Second World War. The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins started in 1947; Stanford inaugurated its writing fellowships the same year; Cornell’s creative-writing program opened in 1948. As is the case with most new developments in higher education, changes in funding were responsible. Title II of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944—the G.I. Bill—provided forty-eight months of tuition for veterans who enrolled in colleges and universities. More than two million veterans, a much bigger number than anticipated, took up the offer, and by 1950 the government had spent more money on tuition and other college costs than on the Marshall Plan. The key requirement of Title II was that the tuition assistance be used only for study in degree or certificate programs, which is why creative-writing courses grew into degree-granting creative-writing programs.

    In the nineteen-sixties, the universe of higher education underwent a fantastic expansion. Between 1960 and 1969, enrollments doubled and more professors were hired than had been hired in the entire previous three hundred and twenty-five years. Most of the growth was in the public sector. At the height of the expansion, between 1965 and 1972, new community-college campuses were opening in the United States at the rate of one every week. A way for institutions to raise their academic profiles was to add graduate programs. (Once added, they became virtually impossible to subtract. This is one reason that there is an oversupply of Ph.D.s in the United States.) By 1975, there were fifteen creative-writing M.F.A. programs in the country. Today, there are a hundred and fifty-three. Creative-writing programs attract students (good for public universities, where enrollment may determine budgets), but, contrary to what many people assume, they are not generally cash cows. Most of the top programs—until recently, Columbia was the major exception—provide fellowship support for all their students, and the classes are tiny. In 2005-06, only four-tenths of one per cent of all master’s degrees awarded were in creative writing.

    The identification of certain writers with university creative-writing programs is, therefore, a postwar phenomenon. The list is long: John Hawkes (Brown), Guy Davenport (Kentucky), Robert Coover (Brown), Reynolds Price (Duke), Wallace Stegner (Stanford), Leslie Epstein (Boston University), Donald Barthelme (Houston), Tobias Wolff (Syracuse), E. L. Doctorow (New York University), William Kennedy (SUNY Albany), Robert Olen Butler (Florida State University). And many writers who are not normally imagined in an academic setting have circulated through the creative-writing system. Philip Roth has taught at several universities, including Iowa and Princeton. Kurt Vonnegut and Nelson Algren both taught at Iowa. (Algren claimed to find writing programs worthless. He later complained, in a piece called “At Play in the Fields of Hackademe,” that “what it lacks in creativity, the Iowa Creative Workshop makes up in quietivity.” He is reported to have lost a lot of money playing poker while he was in Iowa City.)

    And it is remarkable how many fiction writers have come through university writing programs since the war—not just individual writers but entire cohorts. When Vonnegut was at Iowa, he taught a class that included John Casey, Gail Godwin, Andre Dubus, and John Irving. Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, Wendell Berry, Larry McMurtry, Ernest Gaines (“The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman”), and Tillie Olsen were all in a creative-writing workshop at Stanford at the same time. Michael Chabon, Alice Sebold, and Richard Ford (a student of Doctorow, before Doctorow went to N.Y.U.) are products of the program at the University of California at Irvine. Susan Minot, Rick Moody, Tama Janowitz, and Mona Simpson all went to Columbia.

    The absorption of fiction writing into the university has a lot to do with the emergence of robust traditions (as opposed to scattered works) of so-called multicultural literature. As McGurl notes, virtually all the major figures in Latino literature have been American academics. The same is true of Asian-American novelists, many of whom have held university appointments, and of Native American writers. N. Scott Momaday was a student of Stegner’s at Stanford, which is where he began work on his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “House Made of Dawn” (1968).

    These writers have a special relation to the “outside contained on the inside” feature of academic creative-writing programs, and many of the most celebrated have been accused of inauthenticity. McGurl tells the story of the attack on Momaday’s “House Made of Dawn” by Karl Kroeber. Kroeber is not a Native American; he is a professor of English at Columbia whose many interests include Native American literature, and he criticized Momaday for attempting to “evoke an ‘Indianness’ for his readers (the majority of whom will presumably not be Indians) through an Anglo-American literary structure that must prohibit any authentically Indian imaginative form.” Native American literature can be taught in a university, in other words, but Native American literature should not be written in a university.

    Authenticity is a snark—although someone will always go hunting for it. McGurl’s response to Kroeber is sensible: since Momaday is a Native American, and since he developed his literary style by studying white modernist writers at Stanford and other universities, “rather than being contaminated by modernism, Indian art now includes modernism as one of its elements.” As McGurl points out, the horses that the Plains Indians rode when they hunted, so picturesquely, the buffalo were European imports.

    And though some readers are devoted to fiction about ethnic minorities because it tells “their story,” there is a degree to which such literature is for outsiders, a variety of anthropology in which natives “inform” on their own cultures to literary tourists. The rest of the natives are often not thrilled to find their practices paraded before the gaze of outsiders. “To celebrate one’s family to the maximum, to put them proudly and visibly into print, might require betraying them to the eyes of an alien observer we might call ‘America,’ ” as McGurl puts it. “Portnoy’s Complaint” is a case in point. All literature about an ethnic minority by members of that ethnic minority is, potentially, a shanda fur die goyim. More striking is that writing of this kind coming out of creative-writing programs today is the subject matter of literature and ethnic-studies departments tomorrow. Universities have become restaurants that bake their own bread.

    The creative-writing program is an American invention, and it has recently become an American export. The British were at first contemptuous of the idea of creative-writing courses; they regarded them, as the critic and novelist Malcolm Bradbury once put it, as being “like the hamburger—a vulgar hybrid which, as everyone once knew, no sensible person would ever eat.” The first British master’s-degree program in creative writing opened in 1970. Bradbury and Angus Wilson set it up. (Bradbury taught Ian McEwan.) The first undergraduate degree program was not instituted until 1991. But the vulgar hybrid has spread. McGurl reports that there are now writing programs in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Israel, Mexico, South Korea, and the Philippines.

    Still, the rise of creative-writing programs does not explain everything about postwar fiction, and there are some obvious limitations to McGurl’s argument, which he tends to acknowledge in the abstract but to ignore in the particular analysis. Plenty of postwar writers, from J. D. Salinger and Vladimir Nabokov to Thomas Pynchon, had little or nothing to do with writing programs. (Nabokov taught a course on the novel at Cornell, in which Pynchon was a student, but he never taught creative writing. Harvard once considered hiring Nabokov to teach literature; Roman Jakobson, then a professor of linguistics there, is supposed to have asked whether the university was also prepared to hire an elephant to teach zoology.)

    Writers are products of educational systems, but stories are products of magazine editorial practices and novels are products of publishing houses. Carver’s minimalism was shaped by his editor, Gordon Lish, whom he met in Palo Alto in the nineteen-sixties. As an editor at Esquire and Knopf, Lish (who attended Andover) put a highly identifiable impress on American fiction, some of it by writers of lower-middle-class origin and some not. Robert Gottlieb, at Simon & Schuster, Knopf, and The New Yorker, surely had as much influence on the fiction that was written and published in the postwar period as anyone who taught at Iowa or Stanford.

    McGurl is not interested in the effects of individual teachers and editors, though; he’s interested in the effects of systems. But magazines can be regarded as systems for processing fiction. And writers who have moved in and out of the institutions of journalism during their careers—Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe—reflect the experience in their fiction. Their novels are often staged either as a privileged type of reporting, writing that is somehow both faithful to and superior to the canons of traditional journalism, or as dramatizations of the emptied-out subjectivity of the reporter persona—the fly on the wall, the view from nowhere.

    Most readers of “The Program Era” are likely to be persuaded that the creative-writing-program experience has had an effect on many American fiction writers. Does this mean that creative writing can, in fact, be taught? What is usually said is that you can’t teach inspiration, but you can teach craft. What counted as craft for James, though, was very different from what counted as craft for Hemingway. What counts as craft for Ann Beattie (who teaches at the University of Virginia) must be different from what counts as craft for Jonathan Safran Foer (who teaches at N.Y.U.). There is no “craft of fiction” as such.

    And, even on the level of “just getting people to write,” different writers, when confronted with the blank page, have different modes of attack. “Revise!” is the war cry of all writing classes. David Morley’s advice in “The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing” (2007) represents the orthodoxy: “Write any sort of rubbish that covers the outlines of what you intend: the plot outline; character sketches; description; a hackneyed sestina. Begin by freewriting and free-associating sentences until some patterns emerge that begin to intrigue you solely for the sound they make, their rustle of possibility.” It’s a method that generates copy for a class to chew on, but writing that way is like throwing a lot of bricks on a pile and then being asked to organize them into a house. Surely the goal should be to get people to learn to think while they’re writing, not after they have written.

    No one seems to agree on what the goal of good writing is, anyway. Stegner was an Iowa product, possibly the first person ever to receive a degree in creative writing. He founded the program at Stanford by persuading a wealthy oilman to fund a place where returning veterans who wanted to write could get away from their families and hang out. Stegner believed that the purpose of writing was to give readers what he called an “intense acquaintance” with the author. “The work of art is not a gem, as some schools of criticism would insist, but truly a lens,” he explained in an essay published in 1950. “We look through it for the purified and honestly offered spirit of the artist.”

    John Gardner, another workshop legend and Iowa graduate, took a different view of the business. He believed in what he called a “fictional dream,” a vivid, continuous, and believable alternate reality. His book “The Art of Fiction,” published posthumously in 1983 (he died in a motorcycle accident in 1982), concludes with a list of writing exercises, such as:

    2. Take a simple event: A man gets off a bus, trips, looks around in embarrassment, and sees a woman smiling. . . . Describe this event, using the same characters and elements of setting, in five completely different ways.

    4b. Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder. Do not mention the murder.

    4c. Describe a landscape as seen by a bird. Do not mention the bird.

    27. Using all you know, write a short story about an animal—for instance, a cow.

    No doubt Gardner had success with this method of instruction, but the exercises have nothing to do with establishing an “intense acquaintance.” They are about acquiring a knack for adopting different styles and assuming different points of view. And for many writers writing is a job, or a way to escape from oneself. Those writers would not be happy in a Stegner workshop.

    On the other hand, Gardner was a flamboyant and intensely personal teacher. His preferred pedagogical venue was the cocktail party, where he would station himself in the kitchen, near the ice trays, and consume vodka by the bottle while holding forth to the gathered disciples. Stegner, on the other hand, hated informality and disruption. He quit Stanford after students in the nineteen-sixties insisted on lying on the floor, and he resented the fact that he was famous for having been the teacher of Ken Kesey. Personality is a job requirement for the workshop teacher, and it doesn’t matter what sort. Teachers are the books that students read most closely, and this is especially true in the case of teachers who are living models for exactly what the student aspires one day to be—a published writer.

    Writing teachers may therefore cultivate their own legends. Once, on the first day of class, Angela Carter, who taught at Brown, was asked by a student what her own writing was like. She carefully answered as follows: “My work cuts like a steel blade at the base of a man’s penis.” The course turned out not to be oversubscribed. One of Rick Moody’s teachers at Columbia asked the class to indicate, by a show of hands, how many found Moody’s work boring. Donald Barthelme, at Houston, assigned students to buy a bottle of wine and stay up all night drinking it while producing an imitation of John Ashbery’s “Three Poems.” Lish taught private writing classes that lasted from six to ten hours, a little like est training. He had students read their stories aloud to the group, and would order them to stop as soon as he disliked what he was hearing. Many students never got past the first sentence.

    All scenes of instruction contain the potential for transference, and the workshop format seems almost deliberately designed for it. Writing instructors have techniques for stimulating production, exercises for developing an awareness of how literature works, formulas encapsulating their particular notions of craft. But the path of transmission cannot be smooth. “I could write nothing that pleased Lowell,” Philip Levine complained about a workshop that he had taken with Robert Lowell at Iowa. “Arbitrary, petty, and cruel” is the way one of Lowell’s students at Harvard described him. The writing instructor’s arbitrariness is like the psychoanalyst’s silence: the blanker the screen, the more elusive the approval, the harder students will work to be recognized.

    For, in spite of all the reasons that they shouldn’t, workshops work. I wrote poetry in college, and I was in a lot of workshops. I was a pretty untalented poet, but I was in a class with some very talented ones, including Garrett Hongo, who later directed the creative-writing program at the University of Oregon, and Brenda Hillman, who teaches in the M.F.A. program at St. Mary’s College, in California. Our teacher was a kind of Southern California Beat named Dick Barnes, a sly and wonderful poet who also taught medieval and Renaissance literature, and who could present well the great stone face of the hard-to-please. I’m sure that our undergraduate exchanges were callow enough, but my friends and I lived for poetry. We read the little magazines—Kayak and Big Table and Lillabulero—and we thought that discovering a new poet or a new poem was the most exciting thing in the world. When you are nineteen years old, it can be.

    Did I engage in self-observation and other acts of modernist reflexivity? Not much. Was I concerned about belonging to an outside contained on the inside? I don’t think it ever occurred to me. I just thought that this stuff mattered more than anything else, and being around other people who felt the same way, in a setting where all we were required to do was to talk about each other’s poems, seemed like a great place to be. I don’t think the workshops taught me too much about craft, but they did teach me about the importance of making things, not just reading things. You care about things that you make, and that makes it easier to care about things that other people make.

    And if students, however inexperienced and ignorant they may be, care about the same things, they do learn from each other. I stopped writing poetry after I graduated, and I never published a poem—which places me with the majority of people who have taken a creative-writing class. But I’m sure that the experience of being caught up in this small and fragile enterprise, contemporary poetry, among other people who were caught up in it, too, affected choices I made in life long after I left college. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

    November 09, 2009

    Romany Names for Counties and Towns

    Most of the good folk who talked with me after my reading at Aldeburgh on Saturday wanted to know more aboutaldeburgh the Romany names for British counties and towns. This is the list from Burrow's Romany Lavo-Lil:

    Baulo-mengreskey tem Swineherds' country, Hampshire

    Bitcheno padlengreskey tem Transported fellows' country, Botany Bay

    Bokra-mengreskey tem Shepherds' country, Sussex

    Bori-congriken gav Great church town, York

    Boro-rukeneskey gav Great tree town, Fairlop

    Boro gueroneskey tem Big fellows' country, Northumberland

    Chohawniskey tem Witches' country, Lancashire

    Choko-mengreskey gav Shoemakers' town, Northampton

    Churi-mengreskey gav Cutlers' town, Sheffield
    Coro-mengreskey tem Potters' country, Staffordshire
    Cosht-killimengreskey tem Cudgel players' country, Cornwall
    Curo-mengreskey gav Boxers' town, Nottingham
    Dinelo tem Fools' country, Suffolk
    Giv-engreskey tem Farmers' country, Buckinghamshire
    Gry-engreskey gav Horsedealers' town, Horncastle
    Guyo-mengreskey tem Pudding-eaters' country, Yorkshire
    Hindity-mengreskey tem Dirty fellows' country, Ireland
    Jinney-mengreskey gav Sharpers' town, Manchester
    Juggal-engreskey gav Dog-fanciers' town, Dudley
    Juvlo-mengreskey tem Lousy fellows' country, Scotland
    Kaulo gav The black town, Birmingham
    Levin-engriskey tem Hop country, Kent
    Lil-engreskey gav Book fellows' town, Oxford
    Match-eneskey gav Fishy town, Yarmouth
    Mi-develeskey gav My God's town, Canterbury
    Mi-krauliskey gav Royal town, London
    Nashi-mescro gav Racers' town, Newmarket
    Pappin-eskey tem Duck country, Lincolnshire
    Paub-pawnugo tem Apple-water country, Herefordshire
    Porrum-engreskey tem Leek-eaters' country, Wales
    Pov-engreskey tem Potato country, Norfolk
    Rashayeskey gav Clergyman's town, Ely
    Rokrengreskey gav Talking fellows' town, Norwich
    Shammin-engreskey gav Chairmakers' town, Windsor
    Tudlo tem Milk country, Cheshire
    Weshen-eskey gav Forest town, Epping
    Weshen-juggal-slommo-mengreskey tem Fox-hunting fellows' country,
    Wongareskey gav Coal town, Newcastle
    Wusto-mengresky tem Wrestlers' country, Devonshire

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