All entries for September 2010

September 29, 2010


It isn't normal to be putting out a specialist literary magazine in print these days. Everything is online. Supposedly. And online is cheap, gets more readers, can be nicely designed, etc. It's especially not normal to be doing this in the surrealist/absurdist tradition, which is exactly why it needs to be done. (I'll save raving about why surrealism needs to come back into the public eye for another blog.)

We have to think about where our edges are. Being in print isn't unique, but can become so if done well enough. Most printed literary magazines fall into a small range of sizes, the primary two being A3 folded or royal octavo, roughly (bigger than A5, not quite A4), saddle-stitched (that's stapled in lay terms) or perfect bound (with a spine). These formats are standard for a reason – printers have the equipment to put these out at a reasonable price, with less hand-finishing. Prose magazines like The Idler or Granta actually look more like books than magazines, but they're called the latter instead of compendiums or anthologies because they're published regularly.

So Polarity's shape and feel was an important distinction to be made. Our models have beautiful looks – magazines like The Believer, with its slightly-off standard shape, retro-vibe, or McSweeney's, published by the same independent team, which has a unique design every issue, from mock-broadsheets, to a travel-case shape complete with haircomb and a story by Robert Coover printed on one suite from a deck of cards. We went for a solid 21cm x 21cm for two reasons: firstly, it came to me in a dream that Polarity was a square magazine and secondly because the width allows us to fit the magazine in standard A4 envelopes, without fussing around with larger sizes and postage costs.

Since starting, we've found a few closer competitors than we imagined were out there. I've not yet looked it up properly, but there's a Leeds-based magazine called Phosphor, run by people connected to the Leeds Surrealism Group. Also something we found on a recent foray to Foyles, called Patricide – a new, Wales-based mag, printed roughly royal octavo with spine. It's long, intense and produced somewhat on the cheap side, with a colour cover, but black and white inner pages and thin paper stock.

Patricide's an interesting case because it employs some of the USPs Polarity went for, but in slightly different ways. It runs thematic issues with the material graded through the magazine under chapter headings, with little emphasis on the contributors' personalities, as it's about the content. They also use quotations to intersperse the new content.

Polarity has two themes per issue, and the material is graded according to how closely each piece of writing or art fits one theme or the other, with a grey area in the middle where the work loosely fits both or neither of the themes. We also have 'provocations' – quotations from various sources (newspaper articles, stories, essays) that suit the themes. And we have archival material – longer extracts from out of copyright texts to add a wider, pre-surrealism scope to the magazine.

One place we differ from them, and from most magazines out there, is in not including biographical  details for our contributors. Most magazines are an ego-fest of fame and famished, mouldy gratings from the cheeseblock of contemporary celebrity culture. Polarity is designed to try and look like the content is more important than the people writing it – we can celebrate (thank) the (unpaid) contributors in other, better ways, such as by making the magazine gorgeous and not letting any typos slip through. At the same time, readers are a curious species, and we've chosen these people's work for our first issue for a reason, so we went for a 'Further Reading' list at the back instead. This means people can read other work by our contributors and hopefully chase up more surrealism-connected work.

USPs are a business point, something I personally tend to refer to ironically when talking to creatives about Polarity. Yet these have all been important factors in getting the magazine noticed – we mentioned Tenderproduct, and we've another place stocking the magazine in London, the independent and thoroughly exciting Intervention Gallery, based in the middle of Kilburn Cemetery, near Kensal Rise Tube. Without any hard work on our parts, they've both shifted copies of the magazine to people wandering in. Ditto feedback from word of mouth: everyone who's picked the magazine up to look at has said good things about the design. It's making it much easier to build up early  interest than it was for previous lit-mags I've been involved with.

But at the same time, the real reasons for thinking Polarity is a good idea, in the middle of a recession, is based on gut instinct. I've been asking people for years if there's anything in the UK like The Believer, or anything which publishes the kind of weird stuff that the surrealists were into. Everyone says no, which doesn't mean it's not there, but that whatever is there isn't quite right for what we want to read.

So, like most literary movements and manifesto groups, if no one else is putting out the work you want to see, you create it yourself. These groups – the vorticists, the imagistes, surrealists, situationists and all the other little private clubs – have had little more to ride on than the shared sense of being 'different', coming from a sense exclusion or disillusionment with existing magazines,  before diving in to the world of publishing. There's a degree of ESP about it, a gut feeling that there are other people out there who feel the same way. So far, I'm being proven right, it's just finding out how to reach all those people we haven't yet.

September 22, 2010

Reconstructing Michael Minahan, by Martin Green

First baseball cap

for Michael Minahan

Three lines of tamed oil
transferred from folded tin foil rims,
           four oblong spaces;

gaps fill easily with windows, balconies, doors.
Homes observed from alibi dusk, 
           a coveted order.

Turmeric edged clouds spread across the nose,
eyes retain the shock of prison conditions,
             separate from blanched skin.

The stripe that bled the most,
incorporated as shoulders and an undone button-
              down collar.

Lost hat leaves forehead pleats,
spinning zoetrope figures wane
            to a furrow 

and the thinnest stain, imperfectly transparent,
sketched around in dark pastel, disguised
             as a worry line.

Second baseball cap


Brown elastic hair tie,
flattened into the shape of a human ear.

A not entirely happy doorbell.

The most predictable object,
turned upside down to expose a surprise.

Confetti rabbit floating in a rain-filled bottle top.

Bright pink cocktail stick,
in the shape of a swashbuckling sword.

The blue plastic end of something.

An incomplete arm from a pair of spectacles,
dark grey with delicate inlaid flowers.

A metal nut with a small white stone lodged inside.

Two rectangles with a hoop,
oxygen tanks for a diving figure, or,
a pair of doll’s house fire extinguishers.

Fragment of a bowl with a black and white pattern.

Shield from a broken dummy,
without handle or teat.

Red plectrum, Jim Dunlop, USA, Jazz 3.

Baseball cap folded in on its self,
sleeping like a grey cygnet.

Third baseball cap

Party, Party, Party

Flattened champagne wire cages
sewn onto triangular and crescent panels
unpicked from a baseball cap
strung into short lengths of bunting
unaffected by a curious breeze.

White, scratched,
scuffed into something purer,
kicking thousands of imaginary goals
until hexagons flap and fall,
making star and snowflake shapes
from a peeled football.

Shredded confidential documents
strewn like the jettisoned innards
of a party-popper battle
adopt the part forms of plates
and place names.

Fourth baseball cap

September 15, 2010

At the Office by Jessica Vickerage & George Ttoouli on The Prose Perspective

At the Office

UNDERNEATH THE CUPBOARDS it looks like snow after driving forward from your fortnightly shop (that’s how many times I have my hair done) the floor is left straightly dried – this is where we bury the bones Mr Policeman Sir. Think of a diagram of a skeletogram (he doesn’t take his clothes off) and you see the bricked up part of the machine – “there will be no charge for this service” and “I don’t have the Latin”: this is what you want, to carry the load, higher a little – “it has been over a year now”: radio waves.

Peeling fingers from the clam ledger and trace up to 100 with breathy remembrance – “Officers! (chairs rolled up) The fan and whir next time (Betty) Thank-you Betty.” And (oh) I have the dandruff back (after a bottle of pills) – whole shoulder blades – thinking back, deposit, wriggling fingers through the batter to find the cod, back to the undersides and bellies to the previous kitchen cupboards gummed and sealed from the rain and robbers now – they hold the crystal, dum dum da dah, and the crock(ery).

Half the world draws a pension whilst the other presses a ribbing hand against the hipbone of this outfit and you just squeeze until the money runs damp dough. “We used to have a shelf above the fire to store the teapots, Betty,” singing as my hobnail boots tap the rhythm of the dales, Granny stop stuffing the sofa with your dosh. I see Japanese girls dressed as red brides in the park and I have three pencil pots and not a scrap of lace to rub together whilst they ballerina into a two up to down with the one.

From the look of your lineage (unbalanced) you’ve been thinking about jumping for a while now (stepping from the television to violins), did you swim to this ledge? (hand on wet shoulder – comforting like). Quite bad with their minting this high up – “it’s been a year now,” I remember last week repeated over and over, but, “you can’t really can you?”

To the Sunday spread now, they’ve stamped my house one and house two: spokes (tick), pinecone fresh (tick), sprung (tick); line us up will you, but the gold bars stop us from being accidentally cooked (the paper said fried) in the microwave – now there is a thought – a jam(med) door would stop those dribberly fingers from sticking to the forms – “ah, but they leave no trace (Betty)”.

I felt the kick on my shin upwards stairwards, I went up with the tobacco and the fumigation – (PLEASE READ WITH A BLOCKED NOSE) – “I’ll calculate your time remaining, a matter of tabulation, oh, estimates for the better, but will we find the mean, I think, sticking with the average size of an electric pylon, a suicide to tip the scales and repetition along the rail – “Now I’ll be Beachy Head and Bedlam for a while and you do the sums.” DEFINE ME ELEPHANTINE LETTERS YOU KNOW WHAT IT IS I ASK. The Priest is mine for a day; no matter just strap it to the coffin in the final bolt forward.

“Please do pass the bank I need more money for cream.”


The Prose Perspective

One of the benefits of working in a creative writing institution is the ability to mould the minds of the next generation of readers. But not writers; no matter how much leverage one applies to another person's style of writing, they'll always return to their own way of doing things, after a few unsatisfying imitations.

Luckily, Jessica Vickerage turned up at the WWP's doors possessed by the ghost of Gertrude Stein, and towing a seven-inch eyeball on a leash. I made some of that up, but the point is, everyone is steeped in the baggage of alternative reading histories, even if they prefer Wayne Rooney's autobiography to Tender Buttons. Those few who have succeeded in overcoming mainstream sandblasting to find their way into a small, safe cave of obscure delight are the kind of writers, and readers, Polarity is interested in. Better still if they've done it before formally engaging with these immersions in an institution, where good habits will be mutated, possibly damaged, by over-analysis and self-consciousness.

I should qualify 'interested in' with 'exploiting their work in return for early publication.' The Warwick Alumni in Polarity (in alphabetical order: Scott Anthony, Ivan Juritz, Siavash Pournouri, Jessica Vickerage, not to mention the yoked co-editors), are already part of a community which the magazine is a sub-division of. And the magazine is secondary to the community.

There are examples, path-forgers, for us to follow. Some writers, like Frank Key, have dug their way deep into the network of tunnels under Mount Parnassus. (Prose writers are content with the dark underbelly of language, while poets are sun-worshippers, playing mostly with the superficial level of text and leaving meaning to chance.) One recent delight was tripping over a copy of a magazine founded by Chris Cutler in 1985, Re-Quarterly, in which Frank Key featured alongside artwork by Peter Blegvad. People who've been merrily complicit in their own financial exploitation for decades, yet also supported by community, cult fanbases, people who offer grateful boot-kissers like us the patronage of a few fleeting typo-free stories and images, and the hope of survival.

This isn’t so much an aesthetic explanation, as a pointer to the aesthetic tradition’s recent practitioners. But I suppose the key aesthetic explanation for what I’m looking for in the prose is ‘delight’, the 'enchantment' of Nabokov's declaration. That's what's missing from most of the stuff I read these days, include in a lot of leftfield experiments.

September 08, 2010

Issue 1, ‘Death vs. Taxes’: Neeral Bhatt on the visual arts perspective

J.G Ballard and Eduardo Paolozzi together in 1968

The screeching acid yellow of the cover is a bit too much, don’t you think? Under test conditions it has actually proven to attract wasps.

Actually, everything about this magazine is wired with hysteria. Its look, its themes, the intent. This hysteria took a year and a half to reach its ne plus ultra, and now the physical object and all its planned web-peripheries are the exposition of our lovely little problem.  Which is striving to be as alive between the pages as possible. Awkward, sensual and as slippery as a bolting rabbit.

Art editors have a strange role. You often have to speak up for the inexpressible. Images are psychic objects made of heavier material than hieroglyphs. I categorically did not want to make a literary magazine that contained images as window-dressing for the writing. I wanted to give respect to the artists as equal contributors to the concept of the magazine. This is a puzzle I have yet to solve. For me it is the main interest of the project. Identifying the problem is hopefully the first step.

“There should be a magazine for every state of mind” – Antonin Artaud

I have noticed that there are very few high-profile artist-writers, or people whose multi-platform work is packaged and consumed together as one holistic practice. Call it attention deficit culture, marketing  pragmatism or a conceptual fracture between individuals working in different traditions and markets. This honest, integrated practice: was it ever thus? Perhaps it was never thus, or perhaps contemporary separate academic training grounds for aspirant writers and artists deepen the fracture. Perhaps this mixed state of mind needs a mixed magazine.
Hazel Atashroo, ‘Heroine (pulls herself together)’

Hazel Atashroo, ‘Heroine (pulls herself together)’
Clandestine performance to camera
Photograph, 5cm x 4cm negative

There’s space here to introduce just one piece of artist’s work. You’ll have to buy the magazine to see the rest.  Hazal Atashroo’s ‘She reveals/conceals’ series at first appears to be a very quiet kind of exposure*. Violent, flash-revealed nature. A pair of hands feyly clutching at stage velvet. And is the girl on the rooftop a bedroom superhero, a suicide commando or a diver abdicating through and away from the waking, domestic world. All forms of passage, rite, exchange and sacrifice. This is what ‘Death vs. Taxes’ meant to me.

My ‘ultimate’ right now is the sensualist fantasy with socialist concerns. The serious unpacking comes after the experiencing, if you like. Make the cycle longer. Give yourself some lag time for enjoyment. I am into fantasies. I want to extricate why I have the fantasies I have, but I will try not to feel guilty that I am, initially, very prone to those fantasies.

China Mieville, who teaches Creative Writing at Warwick, said something wonderful about Louise Bourgeois’ much loved sculpture ‘Maman’ when I interviewed him back in June:

'Maman’ is very, very much part of the world.  Because it’s ready to stalk, ready to walk. It’s just we haven’t quite worked out how it got there. Whereas, as these other pieces are saying, ‘we are in ourself, we are of ourself, that’s it, the edges are closed’. That kind of event-ness I like a lot.

The visual arts-centred interview concerns China’s favourite cult illustrators, his feelings about contemporary art and how he personally chooses to navigate internet culture. You can read the interview in the upcoming Issue 2 ‘Arms vs. Song’. We’re looking at ways in which we push the interview format in future. Perhaps we’ll select subjects outside of the arts : canvass the imaginations of the non self-selectors and see what these conversations throw up.

Our first stockist is Tenderproduct. A shop with an exhibition space attached (Tenderpixel).  Chief curator Lisa Slominski has very kindly decided to take a chance on us. If you want to buy a copy of Polarity in person and check out an exciting new show in the process, then their new exhibition ‘Traverse Tourist’ takes place from the 7th to the 26th of September. The exhibition aims to unthread the complex theory of ‘globalisation’ through a display of artist and designer’s interactions with the souvenir-object.

A sample Tenderproduct

by Tarjan Patel

*I would soundtrack Hazel’s work with Fever Ray’s cover of ‘Stranger Than Kindness’

September 01, 2010

Landscapes of the Surreal

Alexandra Szydlowska on an exhibition of paintings by Paul Nash, earlier this year.

I have seen the most frightful nightmare of a country ... It is unspeakable ... I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger...- Paul Nash (1889-1946) writing to his wife from the Western Front, 16 November 1917

25 May 1917 was a turning point in Paul Nash’s life which saw the reluctant second lieutenant return irrevocably back to his original calling. While serving in the trenches at the Ypres Salient, the 27-year old junior officer tripped and fell in the middle of the night, breaking a rib and guaranteeing safe passage back home. Six months later he was back at the Front, this time as an official war artist for Britain’s War Propaganda Bureau. His sketches of the war-torn landscapes of Zillebeche and Vimy culminated in his first ever set of oil paintings, among them the iconic We Are Making a New World.

We are making a new world

As a modest studio artist before the war, Nash had been limited in scope and vision, imitating the Pre-Raphaelites and traditional British landscape painters. As a war artist, however, he was forceful and indignant, his paintings suffused with a technical mastery which seemed to thrive in balancing rage with melancholic ruin. A letter to his wife in 1917 reveals the sense of artistic purpose which trench-life renewed in Nash: “I am no longer an artist interested and curious. I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on forever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.”

By the mid-1930s Nash had begun to branch out into modes of avant-garde and modernist art. In 1936 he became one of Britain’s earliest champions of surrealism, pioneering the form as a member of the British Surrealist Group, whose first exhibition opened in Paris in 1936 and included artists such as David Gascoyne and Roland Penrose.

Landscape from a dream

Landscape from a Dream remains one of Nash’s most notable works from that period. Set on the coastal line of Dorset, Landscape from a Dream blends a rich history of British landscape painting with elements of surrealism, the two styles streamlined to present an allegory to be interpreted along the lines of William Blake’s poetry. As with many of Nash’s surrealist-style paintings, a portal is opened into the unconscious world which reflects ordinary life back to the viewer, albeit in a skewed way. In the case of Landscape from a Dream, the material world is reflected in the predatory bird which perceives freedom within the red skies framed before it but cannot pass through to that vision.

The exhibition earlier this year at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London attempted to present Paul Nash’s work in context by showcasing his works according to the theme of ‘elements’ – be they in conflict, harmony or refuge. While many would argue that Nash’s work resists such categorical thinking, the exhibition did show the creative process by which Nash framed objects of personal relevance against a surrealist backdrop. He was captivated by the familiar and overlooked features of everyday life: a particular tree in the back garden, perhaps, or a pattern of cumulus cloud in the sky. He then inserted these domestic elements into strange and uncanny landscapes where they gained what Nash described as a relationship of ‘equivalence’ within their surroundings, with each element playing a crucial part in what can best be described as an enigmatic visual drama.

Event on the Downs

One example of this method is in Event on the Downs, which depicts the view from Nash’s Dorset farmhouse. In this painting three of the artist’s common motifs – a tree stump, tennis ball and a cloud – hang suspended against a placid English landscape of rolling hills and chalky cliffs, displayed in strange proportions and hiding a seemingly obscure narrative taking place far from the 'real' setting.

Yet on closer scrutiny the three objects are in fact closely related, with the corresponding shapes of the cloud and stump echoing the yin-yang symbol half contained within the tennis ball. Only after the viewer has exhausted themselves in unlocking the various clues left behind by the artist, does the painting suggest that heaven and earth are balanced in harmony – and this, at least for Nash, seems to be the point of surrealism. After war has reduced landscape art to stark images of bloody skies and burn out trees, surrealism with its subtlety of form and mysterious symbols remains an obvious form of revolt.

Paul Nash: The Elements showed at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London in Feb-May this year.

Further reading

Dulwich Picture Gallery

Tate Collection

Elisabeth Bletsoe, Landscape from a Dream

September 2010

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