Saturday, 25 April 2009

Never Quit Your Versey Ways

Long ago Karl Marx predicted that capitalism would regularly swing from boom to bust. What he didn’t also tell us was that verse would do this too. As long as I’ve been watching public interest in poetry has gone in cycles. Everyone loves it, sales increase. No one can be bothered with its versey ways. Poets give up.

Right now we seem to be entering another era of boom. Interest is up, poetry books are appearing in the market place in shoals, and Wales is banging the winners out one after another. The Poetry Book Society in London runs a sort of club for aficionados. You sign up, pay your annual entrance money and then receive a choice vol each quarter. You also get a magazine of poetry news and samples plus the chance to buy from a selection of the recently top rated at discounted prices. No need to move from the armchair or the attic.

The Society has traditionally avoided Welsh content, preferring the wider reaches of mainstream contemporary English literature enlivened by Scottish intervention and the occasional American guest. For Spring 2009, however, they’ve made Seren’s Ruth Bidgood a firm Recommendation. Her excellent new collection, Time Being, is trumpeted as the answer to a young writers dominated poetry world. Ruth Bidgood is the antidote to youth’s arrogant surety of its own worth, runs the blurb. A statement that might cause a cheer in some quarters. Bidgood is praised for her quiet passion for nature and her understanding of history. How the past influences the present. Of this many newer writers haven’t a clue.

Elsewhere in Wales other excellent books are arriving on the shelves. Don’t miss Richard Marggraf Turley’s impressive Wan-Hu’s Flying Chair published by that champion of innovative verse, Salt. “Since you ask how it begins, it begins with elasticity”. Marggraf-Turley’s poetry bends and stretches. “When it works you almost don’t need walls.” I’d go along with that.

Back at Seren, Damian Walford Davies has just published his Suit of Lights. These are intelligent and engaging poems. Verse with content that stretches the ways to write. History evident again, near the surface. Poems about people, place and maps. “I look for the right place to break a plane and make my lines a habitable space.” We need more like this.

The Seren and Salt books can be found in decent bookshops, and in Wales we still have a few. You’ll find Ruth Bidgood there, too. The PBS is at 2 Tavistock Place, London WC1H 9RA. Join if you want to keep up. In addition to Bidgood their current recommendations include J O Morgan, Robert Render and the truly awesome Sharon Olds. Top choice is, however, Alice Oswald’s book about nature made with artist Jessica Greenman – Weeds and Wild Flowers.

This is a version of The Insider which appeared in the Western Mail on 25th April, 2009

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Still Booming After All These Years?

Is the boom still on? Things might be slowing down out there in the wider world but among the publishers of Wales things appear to be as vibrant as ever. Wales’ Book of the Year has just considered its largest ever raft of eligible titles. 2008 was a bumper time for Welsh creatives. The publishing revolution of the past decade has hit us full on. Award judges working in English have considered 200 new works. Their predecessors five years ago considered less than half that number. And all this without resorting to eBooks and other downloadable inventions. West Wales publisher Y Lolfa have just announced the launch of a series available from their website and other presses are expected to follow suit. Will we all be greener than green and live without paper at all in 2010? Will books cease to be and novels start to exist only as digital words in their air? We shall see.

For now, however, books remain resolutely hard copy. The annual Wales Book of the Year Award offers £10,000 twice – once to the best book written in English and again for the best in Welsh. Competition is fierce. The shoal of possibles is cut down to a long list of ten during April. Judges Mike Parker, John Barnie, and Tiffany Atkinson working on the English list and Luned Emyr, Gwyn Thomas and Derec Llwyd Morgan in Welsh will reveal their selections on Wednesday 22nd April, 6 pm, at The Management Centre in Bangor. If you’d like to find out who is on the list tickets are free. Call 02920472266 for yours.

Who could be in the running? The year was an exceptional one for poetry so expect some bards. Gillian Clarke, Robert Minhinnick, Sheenagh Pugh, Mererid Hopwood, or Iwan Llwyd maybe. Newcomer Meirion Jordan or old red Mike Jenkins perhaps. Or even Patrick Jones’ eminently controversial Darkness is Where the Stars Are.

Among the fictioneers we’ve had some of the best reads for decades – Fflur Dafydd’s brilliant Twenty Thousand Saints. Lloyd Robson’s half-autobiographical, half-creative travelogue Oh Dad! Meic Stephens’ young generation masterpiece Yeah, Dai Dando. Or even one of the funniest man in Wales, James Hawes’, three books out last year, two on Kafka and one not.

Failing those then it’s bound to be Joe Dunthorne’ s startling debut, Submarine, Gee Williams’ Blood Etc, or even Dai Smith’s Raymond Williams blockbuster, A Warrior’s Tale. The Welsh world is spoiled for choice.

Getting onto the long list ensures exposure and a few shop windows full of your stuff but no cash. That only starts arriving if you make the short list. Three titles in each language will be revealed at the Hay Festival at the end of May. Have the judges actually decided who these lucky authors are yet? They’re not saying.

This post adapted from The Insider in the Western Mail

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Cash Again For Honours

Last December Media Wales honoured Professor Judith Hall. The Head of Cardiff University’s School of Medicine’s department of anaesthetics and intensive care beat 29 other competitors. She was named the 2008 Western Mail Welsh Woman of the Year at a gala ceremony at Cardiff International Arena. This was a real achievement that brought the recipient well earned honour and a terrific trophy. The Welsh world applauded.

Not to be outdone the American Biographical Institute of Bur Oak Circle in the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina thought they’d have a go. Their “Woman of the Year Representing Wales”, described as something given to those who have “had a positive impact on the lives of others,” comes in the form of an elegant cherrywood wall plaque with black insert and gold lettering. It’s a great honour to win one, they assure us. “To reach great heights, one much posses great depth”. Plaques cost a mere $295. No ceremony to attend. No need to buy a new frock or have your hair done. Just send out the cash. A bargain, I thought.

The writing world was once riddled with these sorts of things. There were poetry anthologies which jammed works in like sardines and charged contributors a fee to appear (“to offset high printing costs at this time”) and then charged again if you actually wanted to receive a copy of the book. There were competitions which were free to enter but then cost if you succeeded in making it to stage two. Naturally everyone did. And the fees there were hefty. There were also some wonderful offers to print your specially selected prize winning poem up as a wall chart, on lush paper woven by virgins underwater in Ecuador, and then rush it to you by extra special care airfreight. $600 a pop. Hard to beat.

The one I particularly liked was the bargain offer to put your poem to music for the FM radio market. There wasn’t one of these but we’ll skip by that. Fees started at $800 depending on the type of actor’s voice you wanted. Gravelly deep cost more than feminine high, apparently. You had to accept recitation in standard American. Nothing else available.

Most of these obvious scams vanished as the world shifted from hard paper to digital internet and filled with Nigerians asking you for your account number and sort code so they could send you several million. It is really good to see the determined and lovingly old fashioned people at American Biographical identifying a continuing need. If one of their blandishments drops through your letter box on its cream and stylish paper and with its endearing solicitations then bin it. Shred and throw. You don’t get honours for cash, not anymore.

Adapted from The Insider in the saturday 4th April, 2009 edition of The Western Mail