Friday, 25 September 2009

Sound Advice

It’s always good to ask the public what it wants. People like to be involved, to make their voices heard, to have an input. The problem for those putting the questions is that once they’ve been asked answers generally start to arrive. And something then has to be done. Read them, compile them, make projections, file them. When the Arts Council of England surveyed the public, hunting for data on reading habits, they learned that poetry fans preferred to read verse in single slices. On posters, in magazines, on flyers. Slim volumes (which is what most poetry comes in), apparently, were too dense. Long live the back of the matchbox.

In the past I’ve surveyed literary event attendees asking them what kind of thing would they like to see more of in the future. Novelists talking, perhaps? Children’s authors in discussion? Interviews with playwrights? Sound poetry? It was that last one that struck a chord. I meant the poetry of sounds – the sort of the thing the Dadaists became famous for and which the late Bob Cobbing had taken to new heights at Cardiff’s Reardon Smith and in the Young Farmer’s Club at Felinfach. That choice scored well. I put on Henri Chopin and Lars Gunnar Bodin. Sold three tickets. My questionnaire fillers had thought I meant poetry written to sound, quality principles. Of sonic stuff they’ve barely heard.

I should have known. In the latest issue of Planet magazine in an excellent article on the much underrated French Canadian Welsh poet, Childe Roland from Llangollen, Nigel Jenkins recounts the tale of the only poetry reading on record to have ended with an audience brawl. This reading was given by me in Neath at the height of the experimental poetry boom several years back. I’d been invited to give an explanatory demonstration of concrete poetry to a group of, as Jenkins puts it, “budding writers”. Half way through a recitation of one of my more abstract noise pieces one of the lads began to complain. “This is meaningless,” he said. “No it’s not,” retorted his companion. Brilliant, I thought. Support at last. But the complainer wasn’t having any of it. “Shut up,” he shouted, belting his companion across the head with his folder. His companion replied with a right hook. The two fell wrestling onto the floor and attempts were made to separate them by fellow audience members who themselves got then embroiled. Thus, says Jenkins “ended abruptly what must have been one of the most memorable performances of Finch’s career.”

The remainder of this new issue of Planet is rather less avant garde but still worth reading. Jen Wilson looking for Bessie Smith. Ned Thomas and Dai Smith on Raymond Williams. Craig Owen Jones on the Wicipedia. T H Parry-Williams in new translation. £5.75 at Smiths.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 19th September, 2009

Thursday, 17 September 2009

The Real Job

What do you do? I’m a writer. Yes, I know, but what’s your real job? How do you keep up with the mortgage? Writers have always existed in this hinterland where doing what they do in exchange for money is regarded by many as some sort of perversion of the art. Writers need, always, to be something else. Teachers, lorry drivers, cleaners, professors of medicine, members of parliament, bankers, accountants. T S Eliot - wasn’t he some sort of bank clerk? And D H Lawrence, in real life was he not a gamekeeper?

I suppose the Dylan Thomas myth of a life spent bumming drinks and borrowing never to repay has a lot to do with public perception of the art of letters. Poetry, obviously, has to be done for the love. Attaching money to it would sully the form. And novels? Well, you get paid if it’s a best seller, J K Rowling and all that. But if it’s just a new tale published by Seren then you won’t expect much, if anything, will you?

This is the big Welsh problem. We do it all for glory, many of us, for applause and fame and some petty cash to pay the petrol. Only rarely do we do it to pay our grocery bills. We’re a land of amateurs accepting bales of binder twine and frozen chickens instead of cheques. Can you do a reading for us? How much? Couple of pints and a free meal. Fine. All this needs to change.

I’m exaggerating, of course, but the scene sometimes feels like this. At Academi we run a Writers on Tour scheme which financially aids organisers who want to invite writers to read to their groups. The Welsh Books Council gives money to publishers to help them fund royalty payments. The BBC always pay when they use your stuff, so long as you remember to ask. But the levels are so low.

In his recently published and pretty hilarious autobiography Me: The Authorised Biography, Byron Rogers explains how he used to be paid as Prince Charles’s speech writers. He got £65 for an average speech, and then £125 if the thing was for a significant gathering. That pay scale was put in place by a civil servant. If it had been left to HRH then the implication is that money would not have changed hands at all. Words are so easy and belong to all of us. What else can they be but free.

The counter to all that is that if you pay peanuts then you get monkeys. Wales should do better. We have the talent. If we pay our writers properly then they might stay here.

How much do you get paid for doing this column? Well, enough.

An earlier version of this posting appeared at The Insider in the Western Mail of 12th September, 2009

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Talentedly Challenged

Wales - land of the level playing field. That’s what people want. But in a country that consists mainly of hills, crags and mountains these things seem so hard to provide. What I’m actually talking about is publishing. It amazes me but there are still plenty out there who imagine the whole thing to be an enormous fix.

The great Welsh conspiracy theory, which has been around for longer than I have, still has a long way to run. This theory says, depending on where you stand, that Dafydd Elis Thomas is a CIA plant, that Cardiff is run by Roman Abramovich and that the Masons are in charge of Snowdonia National Park. Why else such beautiful curtains in the new café? It also says that publishing in Wales is in the hands of a self-perpetuating cabal of men who only ever let their friends into the inner circle. This explains, apparently, why Robert Minhinnick and Gillian Clarke always seem to get their work into the spotlight while Wyn Islwyn Davies and Laurence Eau de Cologne Jones never get past the editor’s doormat. The fact that Minhinnick and Clarke are actually good writers is ignored.

Conspiracy theories run deep. The most civilised and considerate of our authors can be seen as part of some pre-ordained plan to keep the wannabes out. Dannie Abse wins Book of the Year because he’s a mate of Nigel Jenkins. Tony Curtis gets a special issue devoted to his work because he secretly owns the publisher. Gwyneth Lewis headlines the festival on the grounds that as well as the organiser she too is a member of the order of the water buffalo. I’ve made those things up but that doesn’t stop some out there believing.

For the talentedly challenged (as well as, come to think of it, the actually talented) competitions provide a way out. Once your entry is in there no one knows who you are. You and Roger McGough and Stephen King all have your work in the same bag. Being judged on its quality alone. Your name has no bearing. It’s a beguiling thought.

Loads of organisations have now latched onto this desire on the part of the unpublished to get on board as soon as possible. There are competitions for novels, pamphlets, essays, single poems and fifty-word short stories. Dark Tales Monthly offers £100 for the best piece of goth short fiction. The Harry Bowling Prize offers £1000 for the best new adult novel (send chapter one and a synopsis). The Troubadour Poetry Competition has Maura Dooley awarding £1000 to the best poem entered. No length restriction. Brevity offers £50 for the best flash fiction submission. What’s flash fiction? Short. Fuller details of these and other competitions can be found at

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of September 5th, 2009

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Still Shocking

Writers are very keen to make it new. It comes with the territory. Since the world never stays the same for more than five minutes neither should writing. New ideas, new forms, new styles. This is the life blood of the word. Readers, however, are far less keen. They like what they know. Novels with plots and conventional dialogue. Things with beginnings, middles and ends. With maybe a bit of excitement en route. They want to read novels that engage them in much the same way that well fitting shoes do. The whole of writing boiled down to five classic plots. Rise to fame, fall from grace, win love, lose it and death. Almost everything in literature can be fitted into one of those. The author of that writers’ standby, One Hundred and One Useful Plots, is exaggerating.

But newness is what writers crave, or they say they do. The relentless pursuit of the cutting edge. The late novelist B S Johnson had a book which came in a box. The chapters were not numbered and could be shuffled so that the story’s outcome was always unexpected. Novelists from the French Oulipo group created works that, for example, consisted entirely of words which did not contain the letter ‘e’ or were constructed of text found on railway stations. There have also been many attempts to create extremely short novels. Microfiction. Tales that are only two or three sentences long. Perfect for today. In fact at Twitter fiction where text has to be within 140 characters is on the rise. Here’s a typical example: “Now, piggybacking on solar emissions, my uploaded consciousness will carry his Gospel to the stars. It’s true: Jesus wants me for a sunbeam.”

In the days when answerphones were machines that contained twin cassette decks, one for outgoing messages and the other for incoming I pushed the envelope a bit. I wrote a novel that consisted of chapters that when spoken would fit onto the 30 seconds of the outgoing tape. I created new episodes weekly. My phone line was jammed with fans ringing in to hear the next episode.

Parthian’s new anthology, appropriately titled Nu – Fiction & Stuff is a 2009 example of where the new generation is heading. It’s edited by Tomos Owen from the Rhondda and contains not a single example of formal experiment or postmodernist challenge. No short stories written in text message nor impenetrable swamps of vocabulary dancing before your eyes. Instead there are straight ahead and, from a plot point of view, often refreshing new takes on old life. Susie Wild drunk while swimming. Bethan Michael rerunning Shameless in Blaenau. Alys Conran working out if Alex is gay or not. Nu costs a mere £6.99. Give the new a chance. Try now.

An earlier version of this post appeared in The Western Mail on 22 August, 2009 as The Insider

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Vino Callapso

What might there be between poetry and painting? In the brave days of the sixties counter culture this place was called the intermedia. Some people imagined that in the future all art forms would merge into a homogenous and culturally satisfying mass. Wall to wall painting. Poetry in everything. Didn’t happen. But there were a few around who wanted to explore.

Meic Stephens, the then pretty traditional editor of Poetry Wales, produced a version of Eugene Gomringer’s famous concrete poem, Silencio. In the original there’s a block of print made from the word for silence with a gap of real silence in the centre. Meic’s version substituted the Welsh equivalent.

Reaction was pedictable. Streams of jokes about poems and building sites and outrage from those who considered anything not in the styles of the long past as rubbish.

Concrete poetry was supposed to save the literary world. But naturally it didn’t. After a few flashes it found itself in the early eighties up a side alley with nowhere further to travel.

In the years since virtually no one in Wales has picked up the baton. There were loads of early Finch visual things but not a lot after the start of the ninties. Cardiff’s Lloyd Robson has, in some of his wilder moments, used mangled typefaces to good effect. And the tri-lingual bard of the north, Peter Meilleur (otherwise known as Childe Roland), continues to produce visual work with words that often defies description.

But that planned common ground for poet and painter just faded. It’s a pity.

In London recently at the ICA’s Poor Old Tired Horse concrete poetry exhibition you could see where some of this might have taken us. Lots of stuff from the Scots, whose climate clearly encourages innovation – Ian Hamilton Finlay’s waves and boats. Lillian Lijn’s machines that made poetry spin. The late Dom Sylvester Houédard’ s meditative typewriter creations. Carl Andre’s words set out like piles of bricks. David Hockney. Robert Smithson. Nothing in the slightest bit Welsh.

Although to be fair they did invite me up to give a sound poetry reading. Took me right back to where it all began. Puzzlement, passion, precision and sore throats.

On the train back I got talking to a completely plastered bloke who’d just flown in from a holiday in Malaga. “Poetry’s brilliant”, he said, after I’d told him where I’d been and what I’d been doing. “But I never listen to it myself”. Then he got off in a drunken rush at Reading leaving his passport, tickets and wallet on the seat. The woman next to me handed the stuff in to the guard. “I wouldn’t try to contact him yet,” she advised, “he’s had too much vino collapso”. Poetry again. It’s in everything.

An earlier version of this posting appeared in the Western Mail on 22 August, 2009 as The Insider