Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Don't Hang About Because By the Time You Get Pen To Paper The Idea Will Have Changed

At the reading we get to that bit where there are supposed to be questions from the floor. Has anyone anything they’d like to ask, I enquire? Silence. I’ve been in the business for long enough to know that right now the best thing is to ask a question myself. And then answer it. Gets the ball rolling. But before I can someone is on their feet asking how we write. Do you just start?

Well, yes, we do. You open your computer and off you go. I’m on the platform with Dan Anthony, the children’s author and scriptwriter. I get so bored, he says, sitting there, watching the clouds go past the window that in the end I just have to start writing. Shelagh Weeks agrees. You think a bit and then you begin.

Do you plan? You do. Do you wait until inspiration strikes? Yes, no, sometimes. Waiting for the spark to arrive, though, can be like waiting for Godot. Start writing as soon as you can, that’s my advice.

Do you have a writer’s notebook, someone wants to know. I do. I’ve loads of these things and usually I’ve left them home when that idea comes. I can recall any number of occasions, walking the streets (and that’s when ideas usually arrive) to discover that I’ve nothing with me to write them on. I scrawl in the space left on the back of rail tickets, on my business cards, on the back of credit card slips and then, when those are all exhausted, I call home and leave my ideas on the answerphone.

Are these useful? Not really, says Dan. Most of the time the notes get ignored. But now and again they don’t. You can never be sure.

The problem with ideas is that they change. When they arrive you have to bang them down immediately otherwise they’ll simply morph into something else. If you plan to write them out as soon as you get home then forget it. By that time you’ll misremember what they were.

It’s like this with dreams. They are never the same when you wake in the morning. Although at the time they were so real.

I’m not sure the world is as casual as we appear to be with our unscheduled jottings. Robert Frost kept his in a pretty ordered style. They’ve now been brought out by Harvard University Press and offer a real insight into how the great man operated. In 2008 Ted Hughes’ collection of notebooks was acquired by the British Library and found to be full of unpublished gems. Some of these guys take jotting seriously.

In the back of my drawer are at least a dozen of mine. Mangled, mashed and bent. Worth keeping? Who knows.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #177

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Taking Criticism Seriously

A nation’s culture has come of age when that culture begins to talk about itself. In Wales we have a poor history of doing this but there are signs that things are changing. Back in the days when the poet laureate of the left, the late Adrian Mitchell, was resident writer at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff, a bright examination paper compiler put one of the great man’s works on the syllabus for the GCSE. Mitchell was flattered and asked if he could try the exam himself. Permission was granted and, along with hundreds of schools kids half his age, Mitchell duly sat the paper. His entry was marked. He failed.

There was a gap between what the examiner thought Mitchell had meant and what the poet actually had. “The syntax of the last two lines…create tension and ambiguity by allowing both narrative closure and apostrophic openness,” writes the critic James A Davies in a discussion of Dylan Thomas’s keynote poem in Deaths and Entrances. Did Dylan have this in mind as he wrote? Or was he, instead, simply caught up in the magic tumble of words flowing from his fingers.

The new critics of Welsh writing in English are emerging in force from the departments at Cardiff, Bangor, Glamorgan, Aberystwyth, Swansea and Carmarthen. Kirsti Bohata, Matthew Jarvis, John Goodby, Daniel G. Williams, Damian Walford Davies, Francesca Rhydderch, Jasmine Donahaye and others. It’s the first time in a lifetime that Wales has been able to muster this many quality literary analysts, essayists, in-depth commentators, refiners and redescribers of our burgeoning culture.

Their work takes the literary surface and fixes it hard into the heart of the cultural engine. The Welsh Wordscape rolls on but now we know why, to where and with whom. We know every detail of our cultural nationalism, tradition, displacement, marginal colonial discourse and the way in which we have found ourselves flooded with post-modernists at a time when elsewhere the world seems to be giving up.

Seren’s Slanderous Tongues, a volume of essays edited by Daniel Williams, covers the past thirty-five years of our literary longings. Matthew Jarvis writes on poetry after the second flowering. Jo Furber covers gender and nationhood. Daniel Williams writes on Welsh poetry in the USA. Tudur Hallam looks at Menna Elfyn’s bilingualism. Nicholas Jones discusses Harri Webb and the place of literary nationalism. Hywel Dix ponders on the place of class.

In the middle of all this Nerys Williams looks at how the avant-garde has been managed in Wales. She concentrates largely on my own work. And, I have to say, largely gets it right. Critics rarely talk to their subjects. They don’t phone and check. They extrapolate from what you’ve written. She tells us what I mean and how I write. Would I pass the exam? I’m not saying.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #176

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Unknowable But Certainly Certain

One of the side benefits of watching ITV’s recent upstairs downstairs reinvention, Downton Abbey, was finding out why the upper classes used to like their newspapers ironed. There was me thinking it was to get the creases out while all the time it was to dry the ink. Can’t have his Lordship’s hands black, can we. Not that papers are like this now. New technology delivers almost dry ink to creaseless paper and does so at satisfyingly high speed. Books come off the presses more or less the same way. Clean, crisp, ready bound and, other than perhaps in their content, vaguely soulless. When was the last time you picked up a paperback from the racks at WH Smith and marvelled at how it felt? Checked that the margins were large enough to accommodate your thumbs, that the text did not vanish into the binding, that the paper looked paper and not packaging, and that the print was instantly legible, evenly done and with lots of space for the tired eye?

When books were produced by letterpress they were all like this. The text set backwards and then inked with a roller and pressed onto quarto paper. Books were slow coming into being and done by hand. The text was measured, edited to clarity, all waste removed. Now you wordily key it up as a computer file and the everything gets printed. Fat fast books when thin slow ones would obviously be better.

But a few old-style outposts remain. David Oprava, the genial larger-than-life American poet now settled in south Wales, sent me Sole, his latest collection. It’s full of intelligent, measured verse rich in William Carlos Williams’s American speech. There are poems on family, childhood, love, life and how the world works. A joy. Sole is also beautifully produced, hand letterpressed by Blackheath books in Narberth, Pembrokeshire. Hardly publishing’s epicentre.

The press was set up five years ago by Geraint Hughes as a reaction to blogging and podcasting and the closure of things this publisher felt dear. Local bookshops being one. Blackheath goes back to basics. No grant aid. Small, slow. Limited runs of chapbooks by mainly new writers individually sold directly by the publisher. Blackheath uses recycled paper and handbinding. Copies are all numbered and signed. They probably use a stack of housebricks to keep their pages flat. Nothing sells for more than ten pound. Geraint says he loves the smell of ink and the sound of the press.

With a couple of exceptions his list reads like a left-field roll call from Mars. New territory and worth following. There are books from Jonathan Grace, Benjamin Donnelly, Garrie Fletcher, Ptolemy Elrington, Adelle Stripe, and other newcomers. One exception is Blackheath’s edition of Billy Childish’s Unknowable But Certain. Check them at www. Blackheathbooks.org.uk

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in The Western Mail. #175