Friday, February 29, 2008

Cover art



The new cover for Suffer & Survive is just in. 'Striking' was my word for it when I saw it. It took a while, then I came to smile. Hopefully it's designed to sit on the 3 for 2 tables and go streaming out of the bookstores when it comes out in August. Readers have told me how much they've enjoyed it despite their expectations, really engaging with the characters (and often with the women), so I am happy for the book's cover to attract readers who wouldn't normally be skimming the popular science shelves.
I managed to squeeze in just three small changes - while my research has continued beyond publication, it's too bothersome a business for publishers to change pagination and footnotes and I'm quite happy for the book to run as it stands. The changes were honouring comments from family members, who I reckon maintain some such rights over the book.

Poetry of mourning


I did know of a Hugh MacDiarmid poem that features J. S. Haldane. I didn't cover it in my biography, Suffer & Survive. The poem was an attack, which was acceptable enough, no harm in that, but as a poem it was execrable.

I've just found this other poem, from another Scottish poet Henry Newbolt, featuring our J. S.. It's dedicated to him. Published in 1939, Newbolt died in 1937, a year after Haldane. In that light it seems to be a poem of mourning, (it was surprising how many felt Haldane's death stole the beauty from the world), with a touch of grandeose hope. I don't know how Haldane would have taken the notion of going from dirt to God, though he was certainly intrigued by the journey that death constitutes.

Here's the poem:

For J. S. Haldane

SILENT Moon and silent morning air,
Silver frost on green and silver lawn,
Shimmering mist in downland hollows bare,
Magical night dying in timeless dawn—
O Earth, Earth, Earth! what needs this loveliness
To quiet a graveyard of unnumbered clods?
Is thy bread truth, or we that break and bless?
Shall we not live at last, when we are Gods?

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Claire Tomalin on Thomas Hardy

Claire Tomalin came to speak to us here at Plymouth University last night - part of our ongoing 'great writers' series. The great writer in question was Thomas Hardy, Tomalin speaking as his latest biographer, though she has a fair claim to the great writer label herself.
She was a game speaker, talking melliflously for over an hour before embarking on questions and signings. She managed to win me back to Hardy woth her obvious appreciation of the man.
I gave up on Hardy after reading Jude the Obscure, with that oh so dire and melodramatic and gloomy sequence of suicides by hanging of a family. Hardy gave up on the novel at that point too, having made his fortune from that and the prior one, Tess of the D'Urbevilles. I learned from last night of Hardy's humble beginnings, and his travels with his musician father, going into ecstasies as he danced to his father's music. His first novel, now lost, was much praised but deemed to be too angry for the market. George Meredith advised him to write what people wanted, which he duly did. Come sixty, and with his royalties from those successful novels, he gave himself to final happy decades of poetry.
In her 70s herself, Tomalin was appreciative of this model of late flourishing from the elderly poet. He felt he had to pick up the pen every day otherwise he would stop doing so. One day (I'm remembering 11th December 1927) he picked up the pen and found he could no longer write with it. He died a month later - a fine show of writing to the end.
I enjoyed hearing of his spell of acculturation in London too, with no funds and no invitations but a zealous round oc fultural activities including hearing Dickens read. One wonders at the compromise of writing what people want ... but since fifty were turned away frm an oversold house, hundred stepping out into the night to hear tales of his stories more than a hundred years on from when they were written, one can't really thinik he made the wrong choice. And since Claire Tomalin reckons Jude the Obscure was that angry first novel rewritten in later life, perhaps we are blessed by not having more of the same!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Lee Harwood


Reading the Bhagavad Gita on the train down from London to Plymouth this morning, it was good to be reminded of the following (in Stephen Mitchell's translation):

You have a right to your actions,
but never to your actions' fruits.
Acts for the action's sake.
And do not be attached to inaction.

Self-possessed, resolute, act
without any thought of results
open to success or failure


Having just finished a novel, it's good to be reminded that the act of writing, the creation itself, is the essence of the work. The weight of the marketplace, a publisher's reaction, the prospect of financial reward, all loom to tear away that satisfaction in a job well done if you let it.

Poets seem purer in this regard. Few poets write for real financial gain, and their work, as Lee Harwood suggests, is a gift for others to use how they will. Lee Harwood has just been the visiting poet for our third year contemporary poet students here at Plymouth, giving a reading and answering questions this afternoon. A fine soft spoken man, coming along the coast from his home in Brighton, he offered the guidance of Jack Spicer, an American poet he 'immensely admires', about who you write for. As with the ripples from a pebble dropped in water, first you write for yourself; the next ripple is for someone close to you, someone you love; after that it is for your friends; beyond that is a 'happy accident'. He laughed at the notion of writing public poetry. So aim for the language of normal speech, as though you are talking to someone, but set this in context, so the context of people in the street outside, of the past and the future, to make it real and give room for the reader to find their way inside.
I'm paraphrasing Lee's words in the hope of capturing some of his poetic guidance. For him poetry should never be preaching, and the notion of a poet as a shaman is a bit daft. 'It is most presumptuous to imagine you have an authority, and who would want it?' As for form, he sets the poem down on the page was with musical notation, to suggest how he would like it to sound, to catch the natural rhythms of how he would like it to be read.
He never saw himself as an English writer, finding English literature of the sixties to be 'insular and smug', turning instead to France, to South America, to Borges, and William Carlos Williams, to Ashbery.
Something I didn't know is that John Ashbery writes to the a background of music playing I've never been able to manage that myself. And I am reminded by Lee's intense enthusiasm for Carlos Fuentes (claiming his book Myself and Others is 'stupendous') to venture on reading the man. A friend in Santa Fe last summer made the same suggestion, recommending early Fuentes, before what he was as the Mexican writer's self-importance set in.
There's no sense of self-importance in Lee Harwood ... who exchanges drafts of his poems with Anne Stevenson to open himself up to extra polish. Heading to America in the 1960s he was impressed by the chance artists had over there to go out on a limb, make a real mess, then pick themselves up and start again. Better to go down blazing than just to bob along, and there's always new territory to explore in new ways.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Novelists and 'dramatic writing'


Speaking of the novelist Richard Yates in an article in today's Observer, the playwright David Hare says: "The highest compliment I can pay him is to say that he writes like a screenwriter, not like a novelist. He wants you to see everything he describes. Dramatic writers find novels unbearable because novelists mostly junk word on word, incident on incident... Yates describes everything with deadly precision, then goes on cutting everything closer and closer to the bone."
I appreciate the sentiment, and share it ... though do so as a novelist who believes in the visual, in detail, in cutting things to the bone. I've seen myself as a visual writer ... it's interesting to now consider myself a dramatic one.
I grew up on David Hare ... Aged 16, riding my moped to the Nottingham Playhouse when it was under the directorship of Richard Eyre, he was one of a stable of top new playwrights promoted by the theatre. His work was revelatory to me. I somewhat wearied of it later, when I noticed Hare was achieving his effects towards the ends of his plays (it first struck me in Plenty) by larding them with false, because unearned, epiphanies. I love a fine epiphany in a work but such things need to be earned (Connor Macpherson's plays show how well they can be earned in a play) rather than grafted on with a dazzle of noise and flash of lights.
Maybe it's time to try Hare out again, and see how he works for me thirty years on from first loving him. Maybe we've aged together. And maybe I'll make a start by trying out Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road, an author Hare ranks with only Hemingway and Fitzgerald as US greats of the 20th century. I'd add to his selection, but can't argue with it, and am glad at least that Roth doesn't get a look-in.

The picture is of David Hare's writing room

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Freelance writing 'without the safety net'

Nicholas Lezard mentions the poet and critic's notion of the ultimate risk: freelance 'writing without a safety net'.
A couple of years back I mentioned to a fellow writer my double-digit main sources of income (which of course amounted to less than a teacher's salary). She trumped me, doubling my number of sources without doubling the income.
For me, they were a mixture of writing and teaching assignments. Last year I took on a full-time job (teaching at Plymouth University). With a guaranteed salary the need for that freelance income stream dropped away. It let me take a break from nonfiction (which minimizes the risk, since it can be sold or abandoned on proposal, though I once sold my house and all my belongings to fund my research on my first nonfiction book) and back to fiction.
This week I finished that new novel (provisionally called Badger Boy, the first in a projected quartet of young adult novels). In commercial terms the risk was mitigated by an agent's vibrant enthusiasm for the early chapters. Still, the book is a wild ride that stays true to its own form rather than a genre. I started writing it back in 1997, took ten years polishing the first two chapters, and then let the book kick itself back into play last May. I guess it's absorbed around eight months of full-time work.
In financial terms that is obviously a risk. Still, this book did not have to be considered in such terms. I have an income, for now, without this novel's paying off. In writing terms, this book set me some ravishing challenges. It was make or break, creativity without any safety net. As a freelancer needing to appeal to the mainstream I had to play it safe on lots of fronts. With an income secured, what the hell, creativity could go for broke.
That's tough of course. It burns you out. To squeeze in the writing alongside a fulltime job meant sacrificing holidays and a social life. It means kicking off the writing day at 5 o'clock in the morning. I'm now in that emotional whirl I enter after finishing a book, exhausted yet with that creative energy still burning away looking for new things to fire at. The book's printed out and awaiting its first readers (I'll be honest and let you know how those readings fare). But I'm also glowing. Writing is the risk I live for.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Roy Fisher

I've been enjoying teaching a final year course set out by Tony Lopez here at Plymouth University. Essentially the course design consists of placing two poets alongside each other; how do they compare? What can we learn form each of them?
Thom Gunn and Rosemary Tonks kicked off the show, bracingly enough. Then came Philip Larkin and Roy Fisher.
Larkin was a fine way in to Fisher. I believe Tony is intrigued by the hiden religiosity of both men. For me, Larkin was the perfect route into Fisher, like stepping from a train station and into a country lane. I could breathe again as new horizons opened out.
Larkin has his moments of epiphany, grand moments in which nature cuts some ineffable dash, but generally he seems so constrained by the rigours of his own attitudes and opinions. His poetry strikes me as some yearning to escape from the trap of being Phillip Larkin.
Fisher, on the other hand, writes from the other side of identity. He is aware of the Larkin trap. As he writes in 'The Poplars':
All I have done, or can do
Is prisoned in its act;
I think I am afraid of becoming
A cemetery of performance.

Fisher's isn't a pinpoint perspective from which to view the world. His poetry is some sort of prism through which the perceived world and his active observation of it are joined.
My blog's gone fairly quiet in 2008. I could fairly put it down to work, but another clue comes from further lines from Fisher's 'The Poplars' and the degree to which they resonated with me. It sounds stark, but it's far from despair. It's stepping back, daring to be still rather than charging toward the next ambition:
I need to withdraw
From what is called my life
And from my net
Of achievable desires.