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I’ve noticed that with some poets and short story writers that having read one of their pieces I go on to reading another, almost without thinking. In the case of the poets Robert Frost is the one for me. I can’t seem ever to read just a single poem of his, but must skim through the collected works, looking for favourites to re-read, looking for ones I’ve overlooked, or forgotten or previously rejected. With other poets, even ones with stellar reputations, I find myself closing the book after the single poem that someone has told me I really should read.

For me this phenomenon, if that’s what it is, has become the touchstone for answering that rather absurd and misplaced question about who one’s favourite writers are – the answer, of course, should be, I suspect, that I don’t have favourite authors, only favourite writings. The fact remains though, that some authors provide several favourite writings, and others only one or two.

I find the same true with short stories. A few writers draw me one from one story to another. Elsewhere I’ve compared a collection, or an anthology of short stories to being like a box of chocolates…sometimes you savour one, and put the box away for tomorrow night….other times you feast greedily and clear the top layer, maybe the whole damned box!

Alphonse Daudet, the  nineteenth century French writer, is one that hooks me that way, especially with his simple stories of Provencal life from the 1866 Lettres de Mon Moulin. They lead me on too, sometimes, to the much more recent re-tellings of similar stories by the late Michael De Larrabeiti in Provencal Tales, in which the author weaves the story of his 1959 journey accompanying the sheepherders of Provence on an annual journey from lowlands to mountain pastures for the summer grazing. At each stop, like Boccaccio’s Decameroni, the shepherds tell old stories of magic, love, mystery and treachery. If you haven’t encountered either of these writers before, you should look out for them.

At present my head is stuck in Presence, Collected Stories of Arthur Miller (Bloomsbury, 2007). Not for the first time, I sat down to write about the powerful and intense critique of fading cowboy life that is the short story The Misfits – later filmed under the same name with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, but serving a strikingly different agenda even though Miller provided the screenplay. Re-reading that story, closely, and perhaps too closely for ordinary enjoyment, I found myself turning, when the essay was finished, to the equally powerful Fitter’s Night, set in a US World War Two naval dockyard and in which a working class man finds his true nobility and citizenship. So, as we say all too often, back to the pages….

There are some startlingly good poems in Acumen 86 – well, I think so!!

There is also a very interesting review, by Fred Beake, of Nobel Prize-winner Wanda Szymborska’s collection Map. I’ve not read any poetry by this writer, so am in no position to comment on the descriptive qualities of the review, but it seemed to me that one or two underlying assumptions about what poetry is, and should be were co-incidentally revealed, and were worth pulling out and taking a look at.

It’s curious the way elements of what we write, which are perhaps intended to uncontroversially buttress some perceivedly more important statement elsewhere in the piece, should spike the reader’s consciousness, like a thorn in the palm as we stroke smooth wood. One such element, early in Mr Beake’s piece caught me so. Commenting on the lack of information in the collection about the poet he says (and the speech marks are his) “some poets like to be anonymous”. It seemed a curious word, that ‘anonymous’, and especially so in the context of a collection of poetry with the poet’s name attached to it. Here’s a tip for poets who might want to remain anonymous: don’t put your name to it! But was it anonymity that the poet was aiming for?

A deeper implication interested me: the assumption that the context in which a poet writes is of concern to the reader. Behind that lies a further implication, which is that the circumstances leading to the writing should somehow influence the reading. Behind that, the idea that the importance of the poem (or of any other piece of writing) lies in what it means to the poet. But as a reader, you are entitled to read for what the writing means to you. The context of the writing probably won’t be the context of the reading, but do we need to know the former to benefit from (or enjoy) the experience in the latter?

The two are not mutually exclusive, but which way the balance of importance tips might well be different for the ‘ordinary’ reader, and what we might call the academic. Academics tend to look back at the creation of the poem, not forward to the effects. Because the effects are acting on a constantly changing group (and context), whereas the origin, arguably, remains the same, this might seem the best, and perhaps only practicable option. But to what extent does, or should the reader need to care about the back-story of a poem’s genesis?

 

Once you’ve snagged your palm your senses are heightened, and the next thorn was about popularity, which amounted in one quoted poem to ‘two in a thousand.” That might not make you a living  – which rather dovetails into another article in the same issue, but that’s another matter (mother) – but the late Norman Nicholson in his poem The Whisperer talks of searching for the ‘one face/Lit with the grace/Of listening’, which suggests a rarity. Being unpopular, in that sense is, perhaps, normal.

Yet, writers in particular seem to fall foul of the ‘high brows’ as soon as they are perceived as being ‘popular.’ Readers of the blog will know that I favour the ‘artisan baker’ over the ‘white sliced loaf’ metaphor when talking, writing, and thinking about the good poems (and other writing) I encounter from people that even ‘two in a thousand’ of you probably won’t have heard of!

Next came “inclined to duck the big issues in favour of the point of view of the individual’. This reminded me of that old Jewish joke, about the man who makes the ‘big’ decisions – e.g.whether we should leave NATO or bomb Syria – while his wife makes the little ones  – e.g.whether we should by a new suite and re-carpet the bedrooms etc. I don’t think it was supposed to.

Followed the statement ‘it is very hard to perceive continuities in this work’, which brings us back to the starting point, of context. I’ve already quoted this week, in response to a quite separate article, Meg Peacock’s comment about judging poetry by ‘looking for evidence of reading’, but it seems relevant again. Perception, and evidence, is about what we already know. We can only find evidence of reading by what we recall of having read. As to ‘continuities’, aren’t they like the answer to the question ‘what can you see?’ when someone is lost, and we want to know where they are? Could those continuities be ‘ours’ rather than the poet’s, or indeed the wider world’s?

It was the final thorn, though, that made me want to sit down and write about all the others too: ‘So I am reduced to asking “ which poems do I really like, and why.”’  It’s the choice of verb here that disappoints. ‘Reduced’?  Isn’t that the only question worth asking, and worth answering (with reasons in writing!)?  ‘Liking’ poems and stories is not something we are reduced to. It is what they are for, though I can recognise the word being progressively narrowed and diminished by its usage on Facebook and elsewhere.

But Mr Beake goes on to say more: ‘but I only take a small number to my heart.’ There are degrees of liking. Robert Frost is high among my favourite poets, yet of the couple of hundred poems in his collected works only a dozen or so strike my heart. How could it be otherwise? To like moderately, as Mr Beake says he likes many of the poems in the collection, is one thing. To ‘take to your heart’ as widely would suggest either being indiscriminate or over sensitive.

It is not in the poet’s or any other writer’s grasp to make us take anything to heart: That lies in the joint enterprise of reading and writing. The reader has to bring their sensitivity and experience of life, as well as their competence in reading, to enable a piece of writing to work powerfully, or rather, to recognise a power within it.

Of course, as soon as I write that, I recall C.S.Lewis berating ‘unliterary’ readers for imbuing bad writing with their own imaginings.

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I picked up my copy of Robert Frost’s poems a few nights ago, to re-read Fire and Ice. It’s a short poem that I first heard read by Jonathan Price during a TV drama. It was years later that I realised it was Frost’s writing. One Frost leads to another (unlike, for me, Ted Hughes, whose poems have never led me on to read another!). I ended up not only reading a dozen out loud, in a voice as near as I can get to Frost’s, but marking them in the book. Laid out chronologically as published in my Vintage, 2001 paperback, I was interested to see which phase of his life drew the most hits from my dozen. As I suspected, it was the earlier years that got most of my likes.

This, of course, tells you more about me than it does about Frost, but then, reading is more about the reader than about the writer. That thought drove me on to consider the question I might be asked, which is if I thought those dozen were his ‘best’ poems.

The idea of ‘best’ poems – or short stories, or novels or plays – has at its heart an absurdity, for it obscures the more useful addition of ‘from your point of view.’ There can be surely no objective best – though I’d be reluctant to argue the seemingly logical extension that there could be no ‘better’ nor ‘worse’ either. What we should say is there are poems we like most, and perhaps have our reasons ready. ‘Bests’ and ‘betters’ though, give a spurious factuality to what can only be a subjective opinion – if that’s not a tautology – with reasons, possibly in writing, and that idea of factuality endows us with our spurious authorities and elevates one person’s likings above another’s.

Fellow writer Kurt Tidmore recently sent me a link to an Atlantic Review article about poetry. Masquerading as a review of a book, it examined the reasons why, writers and readers alike ‘we don’t like poetry.’ It seemed to me to say very little in a lot of words, but the little it did say struck home. My response was to coin the phrase ‘creative potty training’ for the type of poetry (and perhaps other writing) that we see published these days. Kurt hit back with ‘masturbatory narcissism.’ Both of us, I think, are agreed that much modern poetry has nothing to do with any reader, but only with the writer.

A retort of mine, too frequently used perhaps, when confronted with the ‘I write every day’ assertions of poets who have just read out – from their latest collection – something unreadable, has been to observe that I fart every day, but don’t bottle it for sale.

Behind all that narcissism though, stands a desire to communicate, to share, not merely with the mirror, but with ‘the other’. Stephen King, in On Writing  cites the ‘ideal reader,’ who is not necessarily, I suspect, the person most likely to understand or respond to what we have written, but the one we would most like to be!

Mike’s poem L’On Y Danse is one of  the guest poems on the Acumen website and features in the current issue (Acumen #86)…You can find it here.

BHD being cock-a-hoop in Heidelberg

BHD being cock-a-hoop in Heidelberg

BHD says:

I recently sent an old writing buddy of mine a copy of a short story I’d just written.  He wrote back to say he liked it, but that the last word was unnecessary, the sense it conveyed being implicit in what had gone before: its meaning could be taken for granted. It went without saying.

I wrote back to him, pointing out that the very last word was the whole point of the story. What ‘goes without saying’ can be left unsaid for so long that we’re in danger of forgetting it, and that particular story, by saying explicitly what could safely be left implicit, was intended to bring the issue back to light. My hope was that the reader would be surprised at the inclusion, because, obviously, ‘it went without saying,’ didn’t it? That moment of re-evaluation, of doubt, and eventual re-assertion was the view that the story was bringing him to (and, seemingly had!). The events described were to give context to the concept, the context in which the word’s meaning might, and perhaps should be obvious to all!

Readers don’t always find what we want them to in our stories (or poems come to that), which sometimes is no bad thing…but often in short stories I find there are elements at the end that seem to be bolted on…That favourite of mine, Weep Not My Wanton, for example (by A.E.Coppard) has a whole scene following the shocking revelation that is the climax of the story…if we think the story is the events being described. Why does Coppard add that scene, I ask myself every time I read it, and the answer I give myself  reveals what I think must be his purpose in telling the story. (I’ve written about Weep Not My Wanton both here, and on the Thresholds blog, and on Liars League website if you want to go searching!).

I’m not going to reveal the title of my ‘excessive’ story, but if you come across it, I hope you’ll think that last word was unnecessary too, but only after having thought about it.

Earlier this weekend (which means Friday and Saturday) Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop, and Carlisle Writers Group staged a pop-up Bookshop in Waterstones, Carlisle. Thanks to everyone who helped, and especially to those who visited the stall and bought our books! Especially, specially, thanks to Waterstones Bookshop, who made the space available to us, provided what we hadn’t thought to bring, and encouraged us all around. We couldn’t have done it without you Waterstones! And Watch That Space – because we’d like to come back!!

Now available in Paperback!

Now available in Paperback!

You could check out Acumen 86, the current issue….which has a poem in it by himself…MS:Kowalski & A Cake

Not just books….There will be readings too throughout the two days of the pop-up Bookshop at Waterstones (on Friday,7th and Saturday 8th of October, 2016). Writers from Carlisle Writers Group, the Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop, and elsewhere will be on hand to read and talk about their writing.

Why not come along, to listen and buy. This is a rare chance to hear and read the work that the literary establishment frequently overlooks…. Short-listed, Highly Commended, and Prize Winning writers, published by small Independent Publishers, and self-published. It’s worth remembering that writers as famous as Ted Hughes chose to self publish before and after their fame, and as many artists in the music industry do now in preference to working with the multi-national corporate companies! The internet is now giving writers a chance to sidestep the white-sliced bread and baked beans commercialism of the mainstream publishers, and giving them a global reach, which, ironically, means that your local writers might be better known in Hamburg or Beijing than they are in their home town.

Thanks to the good offices of Waterstones

in Carlisle, local artisan writers will be offering their wares during the weekend of Carlisle’s literary festival.

Carlisle and the Borders local writers, facilitated by the Carlisle Writers Group and members of the Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop, will be able to bring their publications to a wider audience during the weekend of Borderlines Book Festival.

A pop-up bookshop, inside the WATERSTONES store will run on Friday 7th and Saturday 8th October, from 10.00am to 4.00pm.

There will also be short readings by local writers throughout the two days.

Many of the books on sale will have been published by small, independent publishers, which rarely get the benefit of reviews in the National and even local presses, despite the high quality of the work within – including prize-winning stories and poetry!

BHDandME shorn

For those in the know, the pop-up bookshop provides an exciting alternative to the usual literary offerings. It gives a chance to see, and buy, what the national papers rarely bother to review – the books published by small independent publishers, and authors. Celebrity breeds commerce, and vice versa, but Indie publishers and sole authors don’t have big advertising budgets and extensive distribution networks. Their books often remain unseen, and unsold.

None of this has anything to do with the quality of the writing! It doesn’t matter how good your book is, even the local papers are unlikely to review it (though Steve Matthews does a fine job in Carlisle!), and the nationals almost certainly won’t, unless it has been published by a well known company.

Things are changing. The internet is providing a means of publishing, and of getting a global reach. A curious side effect of this is that a writer is more likely to sell copies abroad than in his or her home town. The pop-up bookshop comes in here, offering local authors the chance to show their work to local readers.

Remember, these aren’t the white-sliced bread and baked beans high sellers that is the usual bookshop fodder, the household brands that we all know and reach for without thinking. The pop-up offers the artisan bakers and craft brewers of the literary world a chance to sell their goods, if you’ve a mind to try them.

Thanks to the good offices of Waterstones

in Carlisle, local artisan writers will be offering their wares during the weekend of Carlisle’s literary festival.

Carlisle and the Borders local writers, facilitated by the Carlisle Writers Group and members of the Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop, will be able to bring their publications to a wider audience during the weekend of Borderlines Book Festival.

A pop-up bookshop, inside the WATERSTONES store will run on Friday 7th and Saturday 8th October, from 10.00am to 4.00pm.

There will also be short readings by local writers throughout the two days.

Many of the books on sale will have been published by small, independent publishers, which rarely get the benefit of reviews in the National and even local presses, despite the high quality of the work within – including prize-winning stories and poetry!

***********

 

BHDandMe got a freshly written poem into Acumen. It will appear in September, in Acumen 86. I don’t send off many poems these days: I don’t write many, but the last month or two has seen a small crop of half a dozen, which is cheering! Acumen, having encouraged me with publication several times over the years – including in their excellent 60th Anniversary anthology – always get first refusal, and you’ve probably got an inkling of how pleased I am that they chose not to use it on this occasion!

If you want to read some of Mike’s poetry, he has recently released the short collection, An Early Frost, available here.

If you want to read some of BHD’s stories, you could try, The Man Who Found A Barrel Full of Beer. Available here.

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Recently a writer, speaking on Radio 4 stated that all writers were ‘deeply damaged’ individuals, and ‘needed to be’ if there writing were to be any good.

The assertion raises a lot of questions. That ‘deeply’ is a key one. How deep is your damage? How deep does it ‘need’ to be. I’m reluctant to accept the idea that an ‘undamaged’ person has nothing to tell me, nor that they might not be able to articulate it sufficiently well. When I think about it though, I wonder if any human can be undamaged entirely: I wonder if being human is about how we deal with the damage, unintended and intended, inflicted upon us by the activity of living.

I can see how knowledge of that damage, or ignorance of it, might lead us to write. Something out of balance spills over in the need to tell somebody else, or in the need to be seen to be telling, or in the need to tell ourselves. Narrative therapy is recognised as a way of helping the traumatised to move on successfully into their own futures, and don’t we all rehearse the narratives of our lives until we have one fit to live with, fit to have lived with?

Narratives like this are often, perhaps always, about the past, which is when the damage was done – fear of future damage is just another symptom of past damage one supposes! Stories can be speculations about that damage, even when neither we, nor our readers, recognise the fact. And perhaps, even unrecognised, those narratives can help to repair such damage. We shore up our own crumbling lives by telling stories about other ones; by telling stories we, and our readers, do not realise are not entirely imaginary.

On the other hand, despite what we might reply to an interviewer’s questioning, we know that much of what we write is the mangled, disguised, re-structured, and above all distanced, narrative of our own damaged lives.

Here’s some collateral damage from BHD and Me:

TalkingtoOwlsBFB cover
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12 more essays on short stories and their writers

I ran a day-workshop for writers yesterday, as part of the Lanercost Festival. The subject of putting in, and taking out came up again. I’m a putter in by nature, rather than a taker out, but writing advice, and practice is often focussed on the ‘taking out’. Some years ago I worked as a dealer in second hand books, and many of my customers were gamers. This brought me into contact with sculptors of model soldiers. They had two basic ways of working : one was equivalent to ‘putting in.’ I think, and the other to ‘taking out.’ It seemed to me then, and does now, that the methods held more than passing metaphor for other meanings, and I wrote the poem you can read below. I can’t remember whether or not it was ever published, but it did get read out aloud on several occasions.

The Ways of Working

 

The sculptor will tell you how you can

If you wish to make a man

With some it’s what you take away

With others what you overlay

So start with wire

Or start with stone

I know a hundred ways to be alone

 

With wire you make an armature

To shape your man on true and sure

The stone you prize out of the earth

As much as makes a whole man’s worth

Wind the wire

Carve the stone

I know a thousand ways to be alone

 

Add the sinew mould the face

But of your fingers leave no trace

Gouge out a mouth chip out some eyes

Finely etch a skin of lies

Bury the wire

Polish the stone

There are a million ways to be alone

 

[Mike Smith, out of notebook 19 or 20]

‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in’

The line is from Robert Frost’s narrative poem, The Death of the Hired Man. Statements like this, which, even when uttered by one of the ‘characters’ in his poems, seem like observations by the author, are a major element in what makes Frost’s poetry so enjoyable for me.

In this poem, as in many others of his, there is a narrative voice that seems partly Frost himself, yet carries the hint of a put-on rural characteristic. Frost was, up to a point, a New England Farmer, but that was not all he was, and the seemingly colloquial voice that he uses in many of the poems could well be part of his strategy for drawing us in to the poetic killing zone of these pithy one-liners.

In another rural poem, The Tuft of Flowers the first person narrator is scything grass, following a fellow worker who, unseen has gone before him. He finds the eponymous blooms, spared by the other man’s blade, and realises that their common activity, and sensitivities, binds them in a more than physical way. This is neatly expressed in the final couplet, which is a reversal of a couplet used earlier on in the poem:

 

‘”Men work together” I told him from the heart,

“whether they work together or apart.”’

 

A less rural story, but one that also brings us to a single revelatory statement, is Tree at My Window. Here the two asymmetrical lines are:

 

‘You have seen me when I was taken and swept

And all but lost.’

 

As in Blue Butterfly Day – blogged about recently – the reference to human passions is oblique and almost slips by us, but the line gives us the point and purpose of the poem. It is not the closing line though, as it might need to be if this were a short story, and a further verse makes what seems more of an aside, than a summation, as the observer notes that ‘Fate had her imagination about her’ to connect tree and man, which of course the poet has done! He goes on to tell that the one deals with ‘outer’ and the other with ‘inner weather,’ closing the poem, and perhaps nudging the unobservant reader who might have missed the significance of those two earlier lines.

Not every poem, of course, contains such stand-out lines, but look at the short poem, short lined and short on lines, Fire and Ice. Three sentences powerful in their simplicity, the first two of two lines each, the third stretched out over the remaining five lines of this single verse poem, carry a meaning couched in logic, but virulent with emotion. The poem sets out a position in its first sentence, and an acceptance of it in the second. Then it sets out the opposite contention, followed by the reasoning for accepting that too. It ends:

 

‘To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.’

 

That couplet of four syllables, and three of them in each, stressed, imbues the poem with great power. It is almost as if Frost has dispensed with the setting, and gone for punch-line on its own. The structure is there, but the balance between context and statement has changed. This poem is almost wholly the assertion of its point. I first encountered it being performed by Jonathan Pryce, as part of a play shown on TV. At that time I still thought of Frost – as I had been taught to at school – as a sort of ‘nature poet,’ which meant, effectively, one who wrote about how pretty the flowers were. When I realised that this was in fact a Robert Frost poem….well…when I came back, my eyes were open to the emotional intensity, and human passion that lurks in the seemingly prettiest of his poems.

On a comic note there is the stunning ending to A Considerable Speck. The eponymous speck, is in fact some sort of creature that Frost, the writer, has momentarily mistaken for an ink blot. As it makes its escape across his unwritten page he recognises that it has intent, if only to survive. But the poem takes an unexpected turn with its closing couplet, perhaps the most satisfyingly unexpected, and perceptive, of all these punch-line blows that I have found in Frost:

 

‘No one can know how glad I am to find

On any sheet the least display of mind.’

 

Ouch!!  Worth reminding ourselves here, perhaps, that Frost’s advice to poets (and by extension to all writers) was to NOT do it, unless you had something to say….to which, apparently, he would add the exhortation, that if you hadn’t got it, ‘Go and get it!’