Saturday, 22 November 2014

National Short Story Week: Last Days, Lost Ways

This week is National Short Story Week in the UK - a time to celebrate short fiction, one of the most challenging and respected of literary art forms, though not one of the most lucrative.  Since commercial publishers turned their backs on the short story a couple of decades ago, it has been kept alive in little poetry magazines and boutique literary presses - usually surviving on Arts Council Grants. A few years ago its existence was considered to  be under such threat the Arts Council mounted a huge online campaign called 'Save Our Short Story'. Extinction seemed imminent.  But there are recent signs of a revival - mainly because it has been flourishing underground in the 'Indie' sector of publishing.

The ability to Self, or Indie, publish via Amazon, Lulu, Lightning Source, Smash Words and other paperback and E-publishing platforms, has left authors free to experiment with the short form - if you aren't going to be paid for it anyway, why not have fun?   Flash fiction, novels for mobile phones, Tweet Fiction - it's all out there.  Writers are sharing them on Wattpad, blogging them, Tweeting them and getting them into every sort of print, ink or digital.  There have been some notable successes - Northern author Avril Joy (above) was one of the first Indie authors to win the coveted Costa Prize with her story Millie and Bird. 

A couple of weeks ago, Authors Electric author Alice Jolly won the Royal Society of Literature's prestigious V.S. Pritchett short story award (judged by Margaret Drabble) with her story Ray the Rottweiler. Both authors have been forced into the Indie publishing sector because commercial publishers have rejected their work.

The last couple of weeks has also seen the launch of one of the first Indie short story collections, curated and published by the Awesome Indies collective, based in Australia.  Last Days, Lost Ways includes authors from all over the world and covers the whole spectrum of fiction genres - fantasy, speculative, historical, autobiographical, crime and flash. It's a serendipity mix - readers won't like every story, but everyone will find something to wow them. I was lucky enough to get two stories accepted for the anthology - one contemporary, one historical, so I have to declare an interest!  Stories I particularly liked included A Matter of Trust, creative non-fiction from American author Colleen Grimes, and Recipe for a Dinner Party where New Zealander Shauna Bickley cooks up a storm for her errant husband.  

Some of the books I've enjoyed most lately have been short story collections.  One in particular stands out - by Irish author Nuala Ni Chonchuir - To the World of Men, Welcome.  A female author looks at the world with men's eyes and explores gender myths and stereotypes. The result is brilliant!

I also loved this one, Harvest, an Indie published collection of short-short and flash fiction from Kenyan American author Amanya Maloba.  As the title suggests, a lot of the stories are about food and our relationship with it.

Also recommended is a small press publication (if you like horror) of a short story by Elizabeth Stott 'Touch me with your cold, hard fingers'.   It's difficult to get hold of, but her collection 'This Heat' is available through Amazon. 

And if you like short stories you'll love the little magazine FireWords  - crammed with interesting new fiction.

A couple more that might interest (and a shameless plug!):

Monday, 17 November 2014

Tuesday Poem: Simon Armitage - The Great War - An Elegy

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I, Simon Armitage was commissioned to make a documentary for the Culture Show.  He chose 7 stories, based on the letters and journals of ordinary men and women involved in the war, and wrote a sequence of poems which he reads for the programme.  This is the first of 4 short parts - I've given links below to the other 3 if anyone wants to see the whole thing. It's a fantastic documentary from a wonderful poet.

Part 2/4  Link is

Part 3/4 Link is

Part 4/4 Link is

There are 28 Tuesday Poets from across the world and we all try to post something on Tuesday. If you'd like to see what the other Tuesday Poets are posting please click over to the Tuesday Poem hub to read what's being featured.  This week's hub poem is 'Outpost' by Lindsay Pope

'The coast is a scribble. Stars are stored in a
wooden box on my shelf. It is more black than
white here. Like algebra but colder. . . .
Read More . . .

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Hello Lancaster! A new beginning.

Well, it's day 2 of my new job at Lancaster University as Royal Literary Fund Fellow.  I've got an email address, a car parking permit, a computer, a coffee mug and a beautiful new office.  All I need now are students . . . whoops!  I mean Clients. Because we are in a new age of higher education and there's been a power-shift.  Fee-paying students have now become consumers.

This is my new office - the view isn't much but it faces southwest, so I get a lot of light.  There's even a comfy armchair in the corner for reading.

It's 3 years since I left Lancaster to go to Italy - 2 weeks since I was offered my post back - an email out of the blue while I was in New Zealand.  I did wonder if I was doing the right thing in accepting, but I'm surprised to find that I feel very much at home.  I'm not looking forward to the dark morning and late evening drives to and fro across the icy moors during the winter but there's peace and quiet here, space to work and a wonderful library just a few minutes walk through the campus.

All I need now are some students . . . I mean Clients!

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The Tuesday Poem: Vanishing Point by Clare Crossman

On Northend Field at the crossroads behind
an ancient chestnut tree, a gate opens on to ten acres
stretching toward an eastward slipping road.

I go there when I'm unsure.
A green tunnel of trees opens
to where the wind blows a straight path.

Here's where Tudor kings listened to larks,
that still sing heedlessly, staking their ground,
between a seed factory and a black barn.

Never far from water:  there is a chalk stream,
tracing the sound of rain over gravel and disappearing
into land so flat it's an entirely empty page.

Under my feet silver coins were discovered
in the parsnip furrows.  There is nothing to fence
me in but air and a sky.

Out here in the world it is just an ordinary day.
Somewhere behind me a window opens
and ditches trace the edges of the vista.

Wires sing along the hedges;
in the distance two horses canter away
through the long grass at vanishing point.

Copyright - Clare Crossman, Vanishing Point
Published by Shoestring Press, 2013

When I was back in England earlier this year I heard Clare read from this collection and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Clare has a quiet gift for describing landscapes that shape themselves on the page like paintings. One of the long sequences in the collection, Artists Books, explores the way visual images are committed to paper by painter, printer and poet.
'Trees shudder to bareness,
their shapes dissolve.
Suddenly everything is colour . . .'

The people who inhabit Clare's landscapes are gently drawn.  This is Verity -
'She is brought into the ward barefoot,
someone on either side, her index finger
browned from rolling cigarettes. . .'

Zarrin is characterised by her Ossie Clark dress:
'. . . deep blue crepe
with a red satin sash and a neckline
feathered with hand-sewn overlapping leaves.'

Most of these poems have a contemplative feel and the poet's eye is often turned inwards.  The best poems are the long sequences - in particular The Night Ship which is a prize-winning series of poems set in the surreal world of a mental health hospital.
'On the night ship, keys for
drug-cupboards are the life-belts
tied on the watchman's waist.'

The characters who travel on it have complicated pasts and unique ways of looking at the world beyond the locked doors that are both internal and external.

'When neighbours ask she won't let them in,
makes a shrine of tree roots in the house.
When the ambulance comes, they
find her wrapped in an old blanket,
ready for leaving.'

Other reviewers have described Clare's poems in this collection as 'beautiful and unsettling' and I would agree with this.

You can find Clare Crossman's website here.

If you'd like to see what other Tuesday Poets are posting, please take the time to click over to the main hub here.  We're a group of 28 poets from around the world, New Zealand, USA, Europe, West Africa, Australia and Canada - it's a glorious mix! 

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Environmental disaster in Italy

Just emerging from the fog of jet-lag after the long flight back from New Zealand via Singapore.  I hadn't even managed to unpack my suitcases when a friend, laden with shopping bags of bottled water, told us the unwelcome news that our water supply was contaminated with a poisonous - and possibly radioactive - substance called Thallium.  Out for a pizza, since there wasn't anything in the cupboard and I was too woozy to cook anyway, we had missed the police touring the streets the previous evening with loud-hailers as well as the television warnings.

But it's all on the internet.  Thallium is used as a rat poison - and also extensively in mining and industrial processes.  Here, in Pietrasanta, we're directly below some of the marble 'caves' and quarries.  The water, which we believed was pure - and tastes beautiful - comes down from the mountains.  Many of the 'caves' have big tailing ponds outside, so there's some local speculation that the recent catastrophic floods caused by extreme rainfall on Wednesday have caused contamination of the aquifers that supply drinking water. But it may be something else entirely.  No-one knows.

Most of Carrara was underwater after 6 inches of rain fell in few hours.
What's even more worrying is that the contamination was apparently first revealed by a private individual who (for reasons we don't know) paid to have his water tested and then blew the whistle. Who knows how long we've been drinking poisoned water?

So now we're forbidden to drink it, told not to use it in food preparation or cooking and advised not even to brush our teeth with it!  Water dowsers are being parked up in the piazzas and other public places and we have to fill containers from them.  Restaurants and bars have big problems.

Retained water, outside a quarry in the Alpi Apuane, used in the marble cutting process.
Quarrying on Mount Altissimo
If the source of the pollution proves to be the mining industry it will certainly add to the big campaign here to stop the destruction of the Alpi Apuani by extensive marble quarrying.  The mountains are being mined from within and also from the summit down, as in the picture above, where Mount Altissimo is being taken down block by block. But this is all speculation at the moment and we may never know where the contamination came from.

Carrara and the Mediterranean from the quarried out Alpi Apuane
This is such a beautiful place, but it just illustrates what damage human activity is doing to the planet - poisoning the eco-sytem that supports us.  The water problem will cost a great deal of money to put right, which will probably in the end have to be funded by the Italian people, not the water company that supplies it.  Italy is in deep economic trouble already.  There were demonstrations in Viareggio yesterday against hikes in nursery fees, school buses and school meals; demonstrations in Carrara (which was devastated by the recent 'bomba d'aqua') against the lack of action in providing flood defences.
I'm flying back to northern England tomorrow (brrrrrrrr......) leaving behind a difficult situation - but at least I'll be able to drink the water.  Though recent revelations leaked to the press about the state of the Sellafield Nuclear Processing Plant's containment tanks make me worry that the pristine environment of Cumbria's Lake District could soon be compromised.  Human beings simply can't be trusted with dangerous chemicals.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Making a House of Words - Writers in Exile

I'm reblogging my post for Authors Electric, two days ago, on the mixed feelings I have when travelling - the conflict between longing and belonging.  It's a problem for a lot of writers, but it's produced some fine writing. 

“I’m in New Zealand at the moment visiting relatives and friends and re-visiting much loved locations. It's a weird sensation being in a place where I've spent so much time over the years, but yet can never properly belong. There's a sense of both homecoming and exile.

Janet Frame
Janet Frame, one of New Zealand’s best-known writers, wrote that ‘All writers are exiles wherever they live . . . and their work is a lifelong journey towards the lost land.’*1  Perhaps this is because, as writers, we have to stand outside our own experience and look at it objectively in order to write about it. We're always trying to get back to the 'lost land', those moments experienced and gone, at the core of our imaginative lives.

But many of us are also physical exiles. Few people live in the place where they were brought up and the moment you move away from your native territory and look at it from the outside things will never be the same again.  Your mind is always in two places at any one time.  The writer Edward Said - born in Palestine and an exile since 1947 - wrote that what we do as writers is ‘by necessity’, to make ourselves ‘a house of words’ to dwell in.*2

This is what the New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield did when she emigrated to Europe at 18 leaving Wellington behind.  She couldn’t wait to leave such a dull, parochial place, but spent her whole writing life trying to recreate it.

Katherine Mansfield, writing at Menton
‘What is it that I do want to write?’ she asked her journal while living in France. And the answer was New Zealand. ‘Now, I want to write recollections of my own country. . . I want . . . to make our undiscovered country leap into the eyes of the old world.’ Her New Zealand stories, Prelude, At the Bay, The Dolls House, are among the best short stories ever written.*3

Later, when she was dying of TB in her early thirties she decided that it did a writer no good to be transplanted.  Roots, she declared, were vitally important to the depth of our writing.  If we can't connect with them, ‘One reaps the glittering top of the field, but there are no sheaves to bind.’

Since I left my home in Northern England as a teenager, it’s a question I’ve spent a life-time trying to answer.  I’ve scribbled in the damp heat of an African rainy season, the scorching blast of a middle-eastern summer, snow in Scotland, 24 hour daylight in Russia, a rocky sea-shore in western Australia, monsoon in India, trains and ships and planes, an olive grove in Tuscany and currently the windy, cloudy, upside-down plains of southern New Zealand.

Wittgenstein wrote that our most powerful and formative experiences are those of our early years - the primal imprints of the landscape and social networks of our childhood.  These shape our imaginations for the whole of our adult lives. So my roots are firmly struck in the Cumbrian fells.  But I’ve spent my life as a nomad, travelling and living all over the world, gazing nostalgically back.

I recently wrote the biography of a northern poet called Norman Nicholson, born and brought up in Cumbria, who lived until he died in the same house he’d been born in.*4  Would he have been a better writer if he had moved away and gained experience and perspective?  My personal opinion was that he would.  There’s something about being able to stand outside and look in.  But Norman felt that his small town was a microcosm of the world and that he would have gained nothing if he’d lived elsewhere.  A difficult one to argue.  The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh wrote that it took a lifetime to know just one small acre of the planet and that for a poet it was depth that mattered.

When you begin to think about it, there are an enormous number of writers who wrote in exile. Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Edna O’Brien, Katherine Mansfield, Ian Fleming, T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Jean Rhys, W.G. Sebald, Muriel Spark, F. Scott Fitzgerald . . . The list is endless.  So perhaps travel does, indeed, expand the mind and stimulate the creative juices.

I haven’t yet, apart from the Katherine Mansfield biography, written more than the odd poem about New Zealand, but something is beginning to shape itself into words - slowly, tentatively. So, who knows?  I may come back with something more than Whittaker’s chocolate and some beautiful photographs.  As you read this, I will be somewhere in the air over Singapore returning to Italy, en route for England, where I've just accepted another appointment as RLF Fellow in the Creative Writing Dept of Lancaster University.  Another move across Europe, yet another re-location.  The Philosopher Paul Carter wrote in Living in a New Country that, 'once the process of emigration has started, there can be no settling'*5, so it seems that all I will ever have is whatever house of words I can construct for myself."

*1 Janet Frame:  An Envoy from Mirror City
*2 Edward Said:  Out of Place
*3 Katherine Mansfield - The Storyteller
*4 Norman Nicholson: The Whispering Poet
*5 Quoted by Kirsty Gunn in Thorndon (another excellent book about belonging)

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Tuesday Poem: After Making Love We Hear Footsteps - Galway Kinnell

For I can snore like a bullhorn
or play loud music
or sit up talking with any reasonably sober Irishman
and Fergus will only sink deeper
into his dreamless sleep, which goes by all in one flash,  
but let there be that heavy breathing
or a stifled come-cry anywhere in the house
and he will wrench himself awake
and make for it on the run—as now, we lie together,
after making love, quiet, touching along the length of our bodies,  
familiar touch of the long-married,
and he appears—in his baseball pajamas, it happens,
the neck opening so small he has to screw them on—
and flops down between us and hugs us and snuggles himself to sleep,
his face gleaming with satisfaction at being this very child.

In the half darkness we look at each other
and smile
and touch arms across this little, startlingly muscled body—
this one whom habit of memory propels to the ground of his making,
sleeper only the mortal sounds can sing awake,
this blessing love gives again into our arms.

Galway Kinnell, “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps” from Three Books.
To read the poem and hear it being read by Galway Kinnell click here

Galway Kinnell - another of those brilliant Irish American poets - has died. He was 87.  This is a poem I particularly love.

To see what the other Tuesday Poets are posting, please click over to the Tuesday Poem hub here . . .